Elizabeth Barnes’s Difference Principle and the Limitations of (Their) Analytic Philosophy of Disability

This post comprises excerpts from the chapter that I’m writing for The Oxford Handbook of Social Ontology, edited by Sally Haslanger, Brian Epstein, Hans Bernhard Schmid, and Stephanie Collins and forthcoming next year. In the chapter, I draw upon Tina Fernandes Botts’s work on the methodological differences between analytic philosophy and (so-called) Continental philosophy in order to argue that the former (namely, analytic philosophy) is inadequate and unsuitable for the production of a social ontology of disability and indeed a philosophy of disability that can contribute to the transformation required to significantly change the subordinated position of disabled people. In the text below, I have included an introductory paragraph of the chapter in order to provide a context for my ensuing remarks about Barnes’s work in The Minority Body, remarks that constitute the bulk of a section subtitled “Change That Isn’t Much Change (Same Difference).” Many of my criticisms of Barnes’s book, e.g., lack of familiarity with critical philosophical work on disability, rely upon Botts’s critique of the use of the methodological tools of analytic philosophy for examination of race and racism. This critique can be found in Botts’s underappreciated article “Race and Method” here. [Note 1: I haven’t included all of the page references and citations in the text below. Note 2: Don’t copy this text or rip it off in some other way!!!]


This chapter considers the prospects of an emancipatory social ontology of disability, that is, a social ontology of disability designed to foster the cultural, economic, institutional, philosophical, and political transformation required to significantly change the social situation of disabled people. A motivational assumption of the chapter is that at present philosophy—conceptually, discursively, linguistically, pedagogically, practically, and professionally—contributes to and expands the scope of the considerable social injustice that disabled people confront. The chapter calls for a conceptual revolution with respect to how philosophers understand the metaphysics of disability; how they research, teach, and write about the elements claimed to constitute the ontology and ontological status of disability; and how their philosophical claims about disability should be positioned in relation to the broader field of social ontology itself. Indeed, an additional motivational assumption of the chapter is that the conception of disability that predominates in philosophy contributes to both the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession of philosophy and the marginalization of critical work on disability from the discipline of philosophy. [….]

The features of the methodology of analytic philosophy that, according to Botts, render it inadequate and inappropriate for critical philosophical work on race and racism can also be identified in recent analytic philosophy of disability. My argument is that these features of analytic philosophy likewise render it inadequate and unsuitable for the articulation of a conception of disability and indeed a social ontology of disability that aim to hasten the radical structural and institutional transformation required to significantly change the circumstances of disabled people’s lives. Although philosophy of disability that utilizes the methodology of analytic philosophy is apparently designed to improve understanding of disability within philosophy and society more generally, the limitations of the methodology and the ontological assumptions upon which the work in analytic philosophy of disability relies seriously restrict the change that this work could provoke. In another context, I (2017) explain how intentional and nonsubjective relations of social power whose aim is normalization condition the field of bioethics, including feminist bioethics and so-called disability bioethics. In this context, I draw on Botts’s critical remarks about inquiry into race and racism that uses the methodological tools of analytic philosophy in order to argue that these tools depoliticize and decontextualize philosophy of disability and hence cannot deliver a robust account of the historicist and performative relations of social power that constitute the apparatus of disability.

Elizabeth Barnes’s book, The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability (2016), has gained notoriety as the first monograph published in analytic philosophy of disability. In this section, therefore, I elaborate limitations of analytic philosophy for both examination of the apparatus of disability and work in social ontology of disability more generally by considering the theory of disability that Barnes articulates in her book. Among my other claims in the section, I argue that Barnes’s theory falls prey to the drawbacks of the characteristic features of analytic methodology that both Glock and Botts have identified. The theory loses its way in part because Barnes seems preoccupied from the outset of the book with presenting it in a certain analytic form and style of argumentation that can only be described as overdone. Barnes’s philosophical work on disability, I argue, has too much in common with the naturalized conception of disability that prevails in philosophy to be regarded as a serious candidate for a social ontology of disability that will instigate the political, economic, and institutional change for disabled people that social justice demands.

The central thesis of Barnes’s book is that disability is a “mere,” that is, value-neutral, human difference rather than a “bad” difference. Most of the book’s arguments and claims in this regard were previously published in response to remarks that Julian Savulescu and Guy Kahane have advanced with respect to the principle of procreative beneficence. The arguments and claims of the first three chapters of Barnes’s book, which ostensibly provide the conceptual architecture for its remaining chapters, exemplify the problems that (as Botts has pointed out) arise when the methodology of analytic philosophy is employed in the context of non-ideal philosophy about social categories and other social phenomena.

We can note, first of all, the lack of familiarity that Barnes displays with respect to both extant Continental philosophy of disability and analytic philosophy of disability, as evidenced (for instance) by how little of this material Barnes uses over the course of the book and includes in the book’s sparse bibliography, as well as the rather astonishing suggestion that she makes according to which Anita Silvers and Eva Kittay were virtually the only other analytic philosophers of disability. Second, the conceptual analysis that Barnes develops in  these chapters of the book is decontextualized, a feature that Botts identifies as characteristic of work that proceeds in what Glock refers to as “the scientific spirit” of analytic philosophy; that is, the analytical framework  of disability that Barnes develops in the opening chapters of her book seeks an objective basis for identification of disability that disregards questions about the historical emergence of the category of disability and its conceptual objects and pays no critical attention to sociohistorical forces that have precipitated modifications to the use and meaning of the category and fluctuations in the scope of the group of people that it encompasses. Rather, Barnes’s book offers a transhistorical account of disability, in keeping with the general refusal of analytic philosophy to appreciate the historicity of discursive objects and other social phenomena. As Jane Dryden (2019) explains, Barnes is concerned to articulate a rule-based account of disability by arguing that disability is precisely that for which the disability rights movement promotes justice and, furthermore, that these judgements about what counts as disability are rule-based, using cluster-concept reasoning. Barnes puts it thus: “Disability is all and only the things that the disability rights movement ought to consider as things they are promoting justice for—it is rule-based solidarity among people with certain kinds of bodies” (Barnes 2016, 46). Dryden notes that because Barnes aims to pick out a set of rules for what disability is,in an ontological sense, she argues that this (rule-governed) conception of disability can be applied across history. As Dryden notes, for example, although Barnes acknowledges that “Richard III wouldn’t have self-identified as disabled,” she nonetheless argues that he was disabled (Barnes, 50-51, in Dryden, 2019).

Notice that Barnes’s claims in this context implicitly rely upon a transhistorical notion of normality from which (transhistorical) disability is a departure. In Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I trace a genealogy of normality that shows how its emergence and modification is inextricably intertwined with the emergence of modern conceptions of impairment and disability. None of this historicity is acknowledged on Barnes’s account. Indeed, insofar as Barnes assumes a transhistorical notion of normality, Dryden notes, she limits the questions that appear as relevant to her analysis. As Dryden (2019) puts it, “If it’s already decided that some feature ‘counts’ as disability regardless of when and where it shows up, then a lot of the most interesting and important questions go away.” Dryden remarks that if the question that concerns us is whether a given historical example fits our concept of disability today, then we seem to behung up on the wrong question.” For Dryden, the more interesting questions that we could ask of a given historical example of disability are: How did it work in its context? What did it do? How did it mark out certain folks? What purposes did this serve? How was it justified? What kinds of knowledge production and dissemination were involved in maintaining it? How did it change over time? These sorts of questions, Dryden asserts, direct us toward the relationship between disability and other social forces, identities, and classifications, enabling us to “connect the dots” between disability and racialized, class, or gendered identity and thus to better understand what a given society privileges, values, and holds up as “ideal,” as opposed to what it does not uphold and thus what harm may ensue (Dryden 2019). In addition, these sorts of questions call for historicized and contextualized accounts of how the classification of disability emerged and how it has come to describe certain people and putative characteristics rather than induce us to take recourse in the sort of transhistorical (rule-based) criteria that Barnes attempts to lay out. My argument is that the best historicized and contextualized accounts of the emergence of the classification of disability would involve genealogical consideration of the epistemological scaffolding for the classification, namely, “the diagnostic style of reasoning,” as I refer to it.

As I have suggested, the specific formula of the “decompositional” approach to analysis that Barnes rigidly details at the outset of her book largely falls away early in the book. Throughout the book, however, she nevertheless relies upon the general impetus of the approach in order to decompose complicated phenomena—with counterfactuals, puzzle cases, and thought experiments—in ways that enable her to advance argumentative claims about (for instance) what a so-called function is, when the absence of a function is a harm but not bad, when a disability (construed as a natural human difference) is a harm but not bad, and how disability (construed as the lack of a function) should be celebrated. Notice that this type of decompositional analysis of disability into discrete constituents (functions, capacities, levels of severity, and so on), which is characteristic of analytic philosophy of disability, individualizes and naturalizes disability in ways that largely dovetail with the conception of disability that currently prevails in philosophy, a conception of disability according to which disability is a philosophically uninteresting and value-neutral biological trait, that is, a self-evidently natural attribute, characteristic, difference, or property that some people embody or possess. I want to point out, furthermore, that some (though not all) analytic philosophers of disability who assume remnants of the prevailing conception of disability in this way even go so far as to retain its assumption according to which disability is a natural disadvantage.

Recall that Barnes argues that disability is a mere human difference. I maintain that insofar as Barnes employs this decompositional feature of analytic methodology, she both naturalizes and simplifies inescapably complex social phenomena, social phenomena the understanding and examination of which require an intersectional account of structural and productive power. Indeed, such an account of the relation between disability and the machinations and modalities of productive forms of social power or indeed any account at all of the relation between disability and social power relations is, however, woefully missing from the theory of disability that Barnes elaborates in The Minority Body. In many respects, in other words, Barnes’s theory of disability mirrors the apolitical and individualized understanding of disability that mainstream philosophy assumes. Given that the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers is intertwined and mutually constitutive with the conception of disability that predominates in philosophy, Barnes’s theory of disability does not therefore recommend itself as a candidate for a social ontology of disability or, more generally, a philosophy of disability, that would dramatically improve the professional and institutional position of disabled philosophers nor the social, economic, and political position of disabled people throughout society.

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