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

In a previous post, I offered a *draft* excerpt from a section of my contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Social Ontology, edited by Sally Haslanger, Stephanie Collins, Brian Epstein, and Hans Bernhard Schmid and forthcoming next year. As I noted in that post, the chapter draws 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. The previous post comprises some of the remarks that I make in the chapter 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).” As I noted, 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. The post below constitutes the remainder of the aforementioned section of the chapter. (Please do not copy or quote from this post without my permission.)


In the next section of this chapter, I advance an approach to philosophy of disability and social ontology of disability that avoids the problems that compromise Barnes’s theory of disability and the claims that other “analytic” philosophers of disability reproduce. Before I do so, however, I want to end this section with some additional remarks about Barnes’s allegiance to the allegedly unquestionable rules of rational argumentation, rules of argumentation that are the analytic philosopher’s touchstone. One of the criteria that Barnes stipulates that a good theory of disability must fulfill is noncircularity. The analytic philosopher condemns circular arguments as fallacious, as violations of the strictures of rational discourse. In an article that offers advice for philosophers who want to engage in social activism, Julinna Oxley (2020) argues, for example, that one of the virtues of good philosopher-activists is that they are “logical” which, for Oxley, means that they “use logically sound arguments, do not make blatant or obvious logical fallacies, especially informal fallacies such as circular argument, slippery slope, red herring, straw man, etc.” (Oxley). Oxley, like Barnes, assumes that logical fallacies are straightforwardly objective and transparent flaws of reasoning.

In this regard, Barnes cites as an exemplar of circularity my 2002 article “On the Subject of Impairment,” which appeared as a chapter in an interdisciplinary collection of work on disability. The chapter is a reformatted and revised version of my 2001 article “On the Government of Disability,” whose argument dismantled the impairment-disability distinction that structures the British social model of disability. As I have noted, Barnes misconstrues both the assumptions of the British social model and my criticisms of it. In the 2001 and 2002 articles, in my books, and in numerous other contexts, I argue that disability (a complex apparatus of power) effectively constitutes impairment—by and through a host of administrative, medical, and juridical practices and strategies—as its prediscursive, biological foundation in order to naturalize itself and, in doing so, to camouflage its own thoroughly contingent status. The identification of this argument as circular, as fallacious, stems from the analytic philosopher’s failure to understand the productive constraints of modern power and the constitutive and “self-authenticating” (Hacking) character of styles of reasoning that apparatuses of power coalesce. In the fifth chapter of Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I argue that mainstream (analytic) bioethicists who charge that criticisms of medically assisted suicide employ fallacious slippery-slope reasoning have failed to recognize that these criticisms aptly describe the incremental normalization of modern forms of power, especially intentional and nonsubjective power relations. In this context, I want to underscore that claims about the putatively fallacious circularity of my argument with respect to the impairment-disability distinction likewise misunderstand the operations of modern power. Indeed, the examples of so-called fallacious argumentation to which I have referred are both embedded in, and constitute an implicit endorsement of, outdated ideas about how power operates. In short, fallacies of reasoning are inscribed in culturally specific histories.

When we understand that productive forms of power constitute impairment as the naturalized antecedent of disability in order to provide justification for multiplication and expansion of the regulatory effects of the apparatus of disability, we can recognize that both Barnes’s claims with respect to the ontological status of disability and her criticisms about the circularity of my ontology of disability rely upon a juridical conception of power according to which power is repressive rather than productive. A central assumption of my work in philosophy of disability is that juridical conceptions of power cannot adequately account for the political and discursive production of impairment, as well as (for example) nature, body, race, gender, and other (real) social constructions. Nevertheless, mainstream philosophical analyses of disability, including most bioethical analyses of disability, generally presuppose these conceptions in the terms of which power is centralized, can be possessed like an object, and operates downward from a central authority to repress and constrain according to a binary logic. Indeed, analytic philosophy of disability in general assumes that power is fundamentally repressive rather than productive. I want to note, therefore, that philosophies and theories of disability that rely upon juridical notions of power presuppose that (1) the allegedly inherent identities and subjectivities of disabled people are recognized rather than made; that (2) impairments and disabilities are prediscursive human characteristics (properties, attributes, or differences) rather than artifactual products of (among other things) the very medical, administrative, and academic classifications that identify and measure them; and that (3) “people with impairments” and “people with disabilities”—rather than modern inventions of the apparatus of disability whose identification and signification as such are designed to enable normalization of populations in the service of neoliberalism—have existed everywhere, throughout all of history.

Hacking’s account of styles of reasoning and their self-authenticating character provides compelling means with which a vibrant social ontology of disability should respond to both disdain in analytic philosophy for historical approaches and Barnes’s charge that arguments about the performativity of modern power are circular. As Hacking (who acknowledges his debt to Foucault) explains it, each style of reasoning is the historically and culturally specific canon of objectivity about the phenomena—new types of objects, new types of evidence, new ways to be a candidate for truth and falsehood, new types of laws, and new types of possibilities—which the style has itself brought into being as these types of things. Hacking argues that “there are neither sentences that are candidates for truth, nor independently identified objects to be correct about, prior to the development of a style of reasoning” (10). Sentences of the relevant kinds are candidates for truth or falsehood only when a style of reasoning makes them so. “The truth of a sentence (of a kind introduced by a style of reasoning),” Hacking writes, “is what we find out by reasoning using that style. Styles become standards of objectivity because they get at the truth. But a sentence of that kind is a candidate for truth or falsehood only in the context of the style.” In short, styles of reasoning are, as he puts it, self-authenticating (13). Indeed, Hacking regards the apparent circularity in the self-authentication of styles of reasoning as a virtue of the idea of a style of reasoning: this circularity goes some distance to explain why styles of reasoning are stable and enduring. Each style of reasoning, he remarks, has its own characteristic techniques of self-stabilization and persists, in its own unique and peculiar way, because it has harnessed these self-stabilizing techniques. If the self-authenticating character of styles of reasoning were understood, Hacking says, we would have gone some way toward grasping the “quasi-stability” of science (14–16).

Neither the apparatus of disability, nor the self-authenticating character of the diagnostic style of reasoning that contributes to its reproduction and reinforces it, operates according to a juridical conception of social power that construes power as merely repressive, although juridical conceptions are fundamental to the claims about disability that both analytic philosophy of disability and mainstream philosophy advance, as so-called applications of normative ethical and political theories to concerns about disability and distributive justice amply demonstrate. Nor can the complexity of these phenomena of modern power—that is, the apparatus of disability and the diagnostic style of reasoning (one of whose new types of objects is impairment)—be captured by the decontextualized step-by-step, linear methodology that, as Botts points out, guides analytic philosophy. The “circularity” of arguments with respect to performative power and self-authenticating styles of reasoning, a “circularity” that is at the heart of my philosophy of disability, is more like the generative, cumulative, and persistent circularity propelled by the movement of an ice cream scoop than like the self-fulfilling circularity fuelled by the motor of a carousel.

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