(How) Is Disability Relevant to the Field of Social Ontology?

The conception of disability that currently prevails in philosophy construes it as a philosophically uninteresting and value-neutral biological trait, that is, as a self-evidently natural and deleterious characteristic, difference, or property that some people embody or possess. Insofar as philosophers hold this naturalized and individualized conception of disability, they assume that disability is a prediscursive entity, with transhistorical and transcultural properties that medicine and science can astutely recognize and accurately represent. Hence philosophers are generally surprised when asked why they have overlooked disability in their explorations of social ontology. Although sex, gender, race, sexuality, and class are now widely regarded in philosophical circles as intriguing social kinds rather than dreary natural kinds, as constructed categories rather than necessary designations, disability rarely receives the compliment of critical attention from philosophers that a social constructionist thesis about it would afford.

Indeed, few philosophers think critical examination of disability is pertinent to research and teaching in social metaphysics, as the dearth of critical philosophical work about disability on potentially relevant conference rosters, syllabi, and bibliographies amply demonstrates; nor, generally speaking, do philosophers appreciate the critical importance of philosophy of disability for diversification and expansion of the so-called canon of philosophy; for the elaboration of new narratives in philosophy; or for the urgent changes to the homogeneous character of the profession that social justice demands.

Rather, philosophers generally remain resolute that any philosophical attention that disability should be paid is appropriately and adequately provided in the subfield of bioethics and cognate fields of inquiry. In these domains of inquiry, however, the metaphysical status of disability, that is, the prevailing philosophical understanding of disability as a universally disadvantageous personal characteristic, remains largely unquestioned. In bioethics, for example, philosophical examination of disability—usually framed as “case studies”—revolves primarily around deliberation and adjudication about which ethical and political theory or principles can be most aptly applied to clinical situations and uses of technologies that pertain to this allegedly inert and self-evident entity, namely, disability.

A different understanding of disability holds that the ontology of disability, the ontological status of disability, and the applications of philosophical principles and theoretical frameworks to the phenomena of disability are mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing, entangled and entwined. In short, the ontology of disability is always already a social, value-laden, and contingent state of affairs. Notice that this understanding of disability suggests an argument according to which the distinction between theoretical philosophy and applied philosophy is both an artifact and a mechanism of philosophical discourse that enables the naturalization and sedimentation of contingent phenomena, including the naturalization of disability and the conceptual objects that it comprises.

In other words, just as, in a previous post, I argued that the identification of “slippery-slope reasoning” as “fallacious” and of “circular” argumentation as “logically unsound” are strategies of power (also Tremain 2017), I want to argue that this “formal” device of philosophy, namely, the division between theoretical and applied philosophy, is an instrument of force relations. Indeed, a philosophical understanding of disability that denaturalizes it in this way ought to be articulated if only so that philosophical analysis of disability can stay abreast with the degree of sophistication and complexity of critical work on disability, race, gender, sexuality, and colonialism in which theorists and researchers across the university (and beyond) are engaged, including the critical work that identifies how relations of social power covertly condition and reproduce the ways in which disciplinary structures of the university are legitimized. Hence the singular importance of work on disability for the field of social ontology.

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