Social Ontology and Reductive Conceptions of Philosophy of Disability (The Consequences for Disabled Philosophers)

Over the weekend, disabled philosopher Johnathan Flowers once again tweeted a thread about the ableism of the profession and the exclusion of disabled philosophers of disability. In the course of the thread, Johnathan pointed out how philosophers of disability aren’t recognized as (say) doing metaphysics, as philosophers of language, as politiical philosophers, and so on, and thus aren’t considered as legitimate candidates for jobs in the range of areas of philosophy. I make this sort of argument in the first chapter of Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability and in other publications. I put a new and different spin on the argument in the first section of, “Toward An Emancipatory Social Ontology of Disability,” my contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Social Ontology, edited by Haslanger, Epstein, Collins, and Schmid (forthcoming in 2022). I’ve copied (a draft of) this introductory section, “Putting the Social Into Ontology of Disablity,” below, as well as the abstract and keywords for the chapter. Please don’t cite or copy this post anywhere but share it everywhere!

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Abstract: This chapter reprises my call for a conceptual revolution with respect to how philosophers understand the metaphysics of disability; how they research, write, and teach 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. This sort of emancipatory social ontology of disability, I argue, is required to transform the considerable cultural, economic, institutional, philosophical, political, and social injustice that disabled people confront, including the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession of philosophy and the marginalization of philosophy of disability in the discipline. To advance this kind of emancipatory social ontology, I argue that philosophy of disability must forego its reliance of the methodological tools of analytic philosophy.

Keywords: analytic philosophy; conceptual revolution; disabled philosophers; emancipatory social ontology; exclusion; methodology; philosophy of disability

Putting the Social into Ontology of Disability

This chapter considers the prospects of an emancipatory social ontology of disability, that is, a social ontology of disability designed to impel 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—legitimates and expands the scope of the considerable social injustice that disabled people confront. The chapter thus reprises my call for a conceptual revolution with respect to how philosophers understand the metaphysics of disability; how they research, write, and teach 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 predominant conception of disability 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 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 attribute, characteristic, difference, or property that some people embody or possess. Philosophers who hold this naturalized and individualized conception of disability assume that disability is a prediscursive entity, with transhistorical and transcultural properties that medicine and science can astutely recognize and accurately represent in ways that enable the required correction or elimination of this entity. Hence the inclusion of a chapter about disability in a handbook of philosophical essays on social ontology will likely seem surprising to most philosophers and odd to many of them. Social ontology, Brian Epstein points out, is the study of the nature and properties of the social world, concerning itself with analysis of the various entities in the world that arise from social interaction (Epstein 2018). Philosophers who think that disability is a prediscursive, human attribute, characteristic, difference, or property take for granted therefore that the field of social ontology does not encompass disability and its conceptual objects. Disability, they surmise, is neither (say) a social practice, nor is it a social fact, nor do the people who embody or possess this prediscursive characteristic or property of disability—i.e., “have a disability”—constitute a social group, though the people “with disabilities” may, these philosophers imply, constitute some sort of natural composite under the rubric of medico-scientific diagnoses. These philosophers assume, furthermore, that since the ontological status of disability is neither established nor constituted through sociality, it ought not to be studied as such. Thus, although the increased production of work in social ontology has roughly coincided with, contributed to, and benefitted from the growth of philosophical analyses of sex, gender, race, sexuality, class, and other subjecting markers, that is, although sex, gender, race, sexuality, class, and other subjecting markers are now widely regarded in philosophical circles as intriguing social kinds rather than dreary natural kinds, as provocative socially constructed categories rather than mundane necessary designations, disability rarely receives the compliment of critical attention from philosophers that a social constructionist thesis about its ontology would afford.

The assumption that disability is a natural category or kind and, thus, not properly studied in the subfield of social ontology has implications for the shape and direction of this relatively new subfield of philosophy and for the shape and direction of the discipline of philosophy more broadly, as well as for the job prospects and careers of philosophers of disability—especially disabled philosophers of disability—and for the wider demographics of the profession. Inasmuch as few philosophers think that critical examination of disability is pertinent to research and teaching in (social) metaphysics, critical philosophical work about disability is seldom included in potentially relevant conference rosters or on syllabi for courses about (social) ontology; nor is this work on disability commissioned for edited collections about subjects related to social metaphysics; it is usually not cited in bibliographies of publications on topics in this burgeoning area of inquiry; nor is it discussed in the entry for social ontology in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Epstein 2018); nor, furthermore, are philosophers of disability typically regarded (1) as serious prospective candidates for jobs in social metaphysics and related areas of specialization; or (2) as engaged in important scholarship with respect to social ontology that philosophy departments should seek to cultivate and promote.

Indeed, philosophers do not in general 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, they generally remain resolute that any philosophical attention that disability should be paid is appropriately and adequately provided in the subfield of bioethics and cognate “applied” 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 is, itself, only occasionally the target of critical examination and persists largely unquestioned and uncritically accepted. In bioethics, for example, philosophical examination of disability—usually framed as “case studies”—revolves primarily around deliberation and adjudication about which preestablished ethical and political theory or principles can be most aptly “applied” to clinical situations and “hard cases,” as well as to the uses of technologies that pertain to this allegedly inert and self-evident entity, that is, disability. As I explain in Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, furthermore, the ways in which practitioners of cognitive science and experimental philosophy naturalize and materialize disability as an individual pathology, epitomized in their embellishment of the story of Phineas Gage, are especially egregious (Tremain 2017a, 6-8; also, Tremain 2020).

A different understanding of disability holds that the ontology of disability, the ontological status of disability, and the application of philosophical principles and theoretical frameworks to the phenomena of disability are mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing, entangled and entwined. On this understanding of disability, in short, the ontology of disability is always already a social, value-laden, and contingent state of affairs, a historically specific event. Notice that this historicized understanding of disability suggests an argument according to which the distinction between theoretical philosophy and applied philosophy—a constitutive distinction that structures and constrains the prevailing conception of disability—is an artifact and 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. Hence, the singular importance of a chapter about the naturalization and materialization of disability for a scholarly collection devoted to social ontology, although chipping away at the naturalization and substantiation of disability in this way invariably reveals that the term social ontology is redundant because, like disability, race, money, laws, baptisms, and so on, the significance attributed to ontology is itself a social product of a certain history.

Regardless, philosophical work that construes disability as an apparatus of power—that is, as a heterogeneous aggregate of discourses, laws, institutions, statements, and practices—rather than as a prediscursive and ahistorical, personal attribute, characteristic, difference, or property (whether disadvantageous or advantageous) falls squarely within the philosophical realm and practice of social ontology. In other contexts, for example, I draw on Michel Foucault’s ideas about the productive character of (bio)power to show how disability and its alleged foundation, impairment, are materialized and naturalized in public policy, genetic counselling discourses, disability theory, and various subfields of philosophy (including philosophy of mind, feminist philosophy, political philosophy, and bioethics), as well as what is required to desubstantivize and denaturalize disability and impairment in these domains (Tremain 2006, 2010, 2015, 2017a, 2020). To take another example, Melinda Hall (2013, 2016) has drawn on Foucault’s ideas about the productive character of power to show how claims that various bioethicists and philosophers have advanced about prenatal testing, genetic enhancement, and disability naturalize disability and risk within bioethical discourses and public policy. An understanding of the ontology of disability that undermines the essentialism of the prevailing conception of disability in these ways ought to be articulated, not least so that philosophical analysis of disability can stay abreast with the degree of sophistication and complexity of critical interdisciplinary work on disability that theorists and researchers across the university and beyond elaborate. This critical interdisciplinary work, among its other virtues, identifies how contingent relations of social power covertly condition and reproduce the constitutive mechanisms of recognized “disciplines” through which the ableist, racialized, and gendered epistemologies and ontologies of the Western university are legitimized. The artifactual distinction between theoretical philosophy and applied philosophy, a distinction that reproduces and sustains the derogation and marginalization of critical philosophical work on disability, is one such mechanism.

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