Excerpt from “New Movement in Philosophy: Philosophy of Disability,” introduction to The Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability

Philosophy departments in Canada and elsewhere continue to exclude philosophers of disability, especially disabled philosophers of disability, posing real threats to our very lives, including our ability to afford safe shelter, our food security, and our unwillingness to succumb to MAiD. Thus, The Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability is urgently needed; indeed, its publication cannot come soon enough. Though one collection is unlikely to resolve the predicament that disabled philosophers of disability face, the book will certainly play a crucial role in our resistance insofar as the chapters that it comprises highlight many of the forms of structural injustice that we confront.

In this regard, although the publication of the book is months away, I am very pleased to offer you an excerpt of the introduction to the book. The excerpt comprises two sections of the introduction which, taken together, give a glimpse of the background scaffolding of this groundbreaking book overall, that is, the context in which the contributions to the volume should be situated.

Yours in struggle,



Excerpt from “New Movement in Philosophy: Philosophy of Disability”

Situating Philosophy of Disability In/Out of Philosophy

This collection comprises twenty-six bold new essays that mark the emergence and coalescence of a distinctly insurgent subdiscipline of academic philosophy that, years ago, I initiated and called “philosophy of disability.” As the contributions to the collection variously illustrate, specialists in this emerging subfield of philosophy do the following: (1) they examine both how philosophy puts into circulation misrepresentations of phenomena that disability comprises and how it enhances existing misrepresentations of these phenomena; (2) they advance arguments and explanations about how critical and oppositional analyses of disability are marginalized in philosophy, if not entirely excluded from it; (3) they advance arguments and explanations about how disabled philosophers–and disabled philosophers of disability in particular–are vastly underrepresented in the profession; and (4) they articulate cutting-edge understandings of disability that construe it as an irreducibly social and political affair.

In other words, philosophy of disability identifies and interrogates how disability has historically been produced, represented, and addressed within the discipline of philosophy and the broader social milieu; it scrutinizes how its own ineluctably critical approach to disability is marginalized in some areas of philosophy and entirely excluded from other areas of the discipline; it documents how disabled philosophers of disability are virtually absent from permanent positions in the profession; and it offers novel discourses about disability that refuse the strategic naturalization and depoliticization of disability by and through the institutional, professional, and disciplinary practices that function as the sedimented scaffolding of philosophy.

Mainstream (nondisabled) philosophy continues to operate under the guise of neutrality, rationality, and objectivity. Nevertheless, the discipline of philosophy–and every other “traditional” discipline that constitutes the modern university–both implicitly and explicitly advances certain ontologies, methodologies, and epistemologies, that is, certain political, social, economic, cultural, and institutional mechanisms condition philosophy and every other discipline of the modern university, even though conventional, established disciplines such as philosophy continue to be represented—and to variously represent themselves—as value neutral, disinterested, detached,  and impartial. Indeed, the purported neutrality, rationality, and objectivity which is alleged to be foundational to philosophy disguise the situated and interested nature of philosophical movements, approaches, and argumentative claims.

Throughout the past several decades and in the last several years especially, philosophers who are institutionally, politically, and socially subordinated have steadily challenged the cisgender and heteronormative whiteness and androcentrism of philosophy, persistently working to forge paths for the discipline that make it available to a wider range of constituencies who import an array of hitherto obscured and subjugated identities, perspectives, histories, and values into philosophical discourse and practice. For example, a number of feminist philosophy journals and societies have been created; summer schools and institutes have proliferated that provide mentoring and other support to racialized, 2SLGBTQ+, and working-class philosophy students; professional philosophy associations increasingly fund projects that promote the interests of underrepresented philosophy faculty; and more and more philosophy conferences prioritize the contributions of members of underrepresented groups in philosophy, while spotlighting marginalized areas of philosophical research.

Despite resistance and outright hostility from certain corners of philosophy, furthermore, an increasing number of philosophy departments offer courses in feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, queer theory, Latinx philosophy, and other areas of inquiry that defy previously accepted ideas about what counts as philosophy and who counts as a philosopher. The subject matter of these courses is designed to transform the discipline of philosophy by subverting the (hetero)sexism, racism, Eurocentrism, homophobia, and transphobia embedded in the claims of mainstream philosophers; by critiquing the methods and “foundational” assumptions of Eurocentric Western philosophy along these lines; and by introducing alternative discourses, methodologies, and thinkers into the so-called canon of philosophy. Some philosophers now deliberately utilize the aforementioned areas of inquiry to redress the androcentrism, Eurocentrism, and whiteness of the discipline of philosophy, as well as to ameliorate the historical underrepresentation of some groups of philosophers within their own respective departments and the profession of philosophy more generally.

Notwithstanding the ways that relations of power within the discipline and profession have begun to shift due to these measures, philosophy of disability and disabled philosophers continue to be systematically left out of many, if not most, of these initiatives or are haphazardly added to them based on assumptions about “inclusion” and “diversity” that take gender and race (construed as mutually exclusive) to be paradigmatic categories of identity and subjection, effectively depoliticizing disability and obscuring how the distinct ways that disabled philosophers are subjected in philosophy complicate myriad constructions of gender and race. The enduring and demoralizing inaccessibility of feminist and other philosophy conferences, for example, drastically constrains the efforts of disabled feminist, racialized, and queer philosophers of disability to de-segregate the discipline and profession of philosophy and, indeed, reinforces and reproduces segregationist practices in philosophy. Thus, this collection strives to disrupt the unsatisfactory dimensions of many actions that have been introduced to diversify the discipline and profession (and academia more broadly).

One of the features that philosophy of disability has in common with philosophy of gender and philosophy of race, as well as with other oppositional and counter-discourses in the university, is a central reliance on the tools of social constructionism and hence an implicit critique of essentialism. Although philosophers of disability may disagree with each other about what disability is, as well as how, and the extent to which, disability is socially constructed, assumptions about the social constitution of disability more or less lie at the heart of philosophy of disability; that is, regardless of how much practitioners of this relatively recent subfield of philosophical inquiry otherwise disagree with each other, they concur with each other that disability is not a natural state of affairs that exists apart from historically contingent relations of social power. Rather, philosophers of disability provide insights that talk back to the dominant conceptualization of disability that is constitutive of bioethics, cognitive science, and mainstream political philosophy and ethics especially, according to which disability is a natural–i.e., prediscursive–deficit, personal misfortune, or pathology that inevitably leads to the social, economic, and political disadvantages that disabled people confront.

Indeed, the questions that mainstream philosophers have asked (and continue to ask) about disability rely on a cluster of motivational assumptions that take for granted the metaphysical status and epistemological character of disability, casting it as a self-evident and hence philosophically uninteresting designation that science and medicine can accurately represent. On the terms of this cluster of assumptions, disability is a transcultural and transhistorical disadvantage, an objective human defect, that is, a non-accidental, biological human property, attribute, or characteristic that ought to be prevented, corrected, eliminated, or cured. That these assumptions are contestable, that disability might be a historically and culturally specific and contingent social phenomenon, a complex apparatus of power rather than a natural attribute or property that certain people possess, is not considered, let alone seriously entertained. Insofar as practitioners of the Euro-American philosophical tradition have (with few exceptions) cast disability as a natural, negative, and inert state of affairs in this way, they have largely removed disability from the realm of philosophical inquiry, precluding it from serious scrutiny and keeping at bay philosophical debate and questioning about its epistemological, ethical, ontological, and political status. The marginalization and exclusion from philosophical discourse of urgent social and political matters with respect to disability and the COVID-19 pandemic are a case in point.

Mainstream philosophical discourse about the COVID-19 pandemic has disregarded the structural ableism, poverty, isolation, and other social disadvantages and inequities that have increasingly accrued to disabled people during the pandemic, uniformly attributing these consequences of the pandemic to an inherent natural vulnerability that resides in disabled people themselves rather than to the neoliberal policies that fostered these disadvantages or exacerbated existing inequities. When, over the course of the pandemic, philosophers have (if at all) considered the phenomena that they perceive to constitute disability, they have naturalized these phenomena and sequestered them in the domain of bioethics–as is routinely done in philosophy when issues that pertain to disability arise–directing their attention almost singularly to questions and claims that medicalize and individualize disability, including questions and claims about the development of triage protocols for supposedly scarce health-care goods and resources; questions and claims about whether disabled people can justifiably retain their ventilators if COVID-19 hospital units require them; and questions and claims about which disabled people, in which countries, should or should not be prioritized for vaccination (Tremain 2021).

Nevertheless, philosophy of disability–a widening body of critical philosophical work–denaturalizes disability and, in so doing, politicizes domains of phenomena with respect to disability that (nondisabled) philosophers either naturalize and omit from critical consideration or misrepresent in ways that detrimentally affect disabled people, including the phenomena that have characterized the COVID-19 pandemic: the naturalization and depoliticization of risk, the vulnerabilization of disabled people and elders confined in nursing homes and other carceral congregate settings, and the neoliberal privatization of responsibility for transmission of the virus itself (Tremain 2021).

What Philosophy of Disability Isn’t

The publication of The Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability will undermine prevailing elements of philosophy that naturalize and medicalize disability–regardless of whether they congeal and manifest in mainstream philosophy or in underrepresented oppositional philosophies–by introducing a substantial corpus of philosophical work designed both to subvert the adverse arguments about disability that philosophers articulate and to destabilize the hostile sociocultural discourses about disability from which philosophy draws and to which it contributes. In contradistinction to typical mainstream philosophy, philosophy of disability represents itself as politically motivated in character and socially engaged in content. Like other oppositional and progressive discourses within the university, philosophy of disability has grown out of and remains associated with cultural movement for social justice that endeavors to unsettle current institutional, political, economic, and social arrangements and the power relations that comprise them, reproduce them, and sustain them. A motivational assumption of the collection is, therefore, the contention that the incorporation of certain treatments of disability–certain analytic treatments of disability, especially bioethical treatments of it–under the rubric of philosophy of disability dilutes the radical potential of this area of philosophical practice. These “applications” of analytic philosophy to disability serve, in a variety of ways, to reinstate conventional relations of power with respect to disability. 

Indeed, the motivational assumptions of this new subfield—philosophy of disability—are distinct from the assumptions that motivate mainstream philosophical stances on disability according to which disability is a prediscursive human trait or characteristic, a natural flaw or defect that can be adequately and appropriately addressed in the subfield of bioethics and cognate areas of inquiry. The assumptions that motivate philosophy of disability are, moreover, importantly different from the presuppositions that inspire inquiries about disability whose terms of reference are framed as mutually exclusive, dispassionately associated with each other through an ampersand—that is, as philosophy and disability (viz. feminist philosophy and disability, moral philosophy and disability, etc.)—rather than purposively implicated in each other through a preposition—that is, as philosophy of disability. Within the terms of the former frame–philosophy and disability–disability is positioned as an object upon which philosophy sets its overbearing inquisitorial gaze, a gaze whose primary research interests remain the questions and concerns about disability that (nondisabled, white, heterosexual, and propertied) mainstream Western and Northern philosophers have generated, largely under the rubric of bioethics. Within the terms of the latter frame—philosophy of disability—by contrast, the ways in which philosophers research and write about the phenomena of disability are assumed to significantly contribute to the very constitution and reproduction of disability, to the ways in which causation with respect to disability is understood, to how the causes and effects of disability are represented, as well as to the constitution, consolidation, representation, and reproduction of philosophy itself.

As the authors in this collection demonstrate, the discursive practices that philosophers use to represent disability, the contexts in which certain forms of representation of disability take place, and the assumptions that underlie the rationale offered for why and how representation takes place as such are fundamental mechanisms of (the apparatuses of) disability and ableism, materializing the contingent phenomena that they comprise, elaborating their parameters, specifying their delineation, and so on. An astute philosophy of disability recognizes that its defining terms of reference are mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing, entangled, and entwined.

Insofar as a certain strand of philosophers who write about disability have for the most part concentrated on the formulation of responses to a normative agenda that their predominantly nondisabled and white mainstream philosophy interlocutors have essentially determined for them, their philosophical reflections on disability have remained largely wedded to an ableist, racist, speciesist, and cisheterosexist agenda. That is, inasmuch as these philosophers have primarily confined their analyses of disability to (for example) normative concerns with respect to the debate between outdated conceptions of justice and care; the most suitable account of distributive justice for what society owes disabled people; the so-called expressivist objection; the distinction between “curative” and “therapeutic” technologies with respect to disability; and mainstream assumptions about the allegedly diminished quality of life of disabled people–all of which matters their interlocutors in mainstream analytic philosophy initiated in the first place–examination of the metaphysical and epistemological status of disability has continued to be neglected in philosophy; naturalization and medicalization of disability have expanded in new directions in certain areas of the discipline; the eugenic impetus of bioethics has been legitimized; the historical emergence of disability and its contingency have remained obscured; denial persists about how certain ontological and ethical commitments condition ableist segregation of the profession; and the ways that disability is intertwined with other apparatuses of power–including settler colonialism, nationalism, white supremacy, class, environmental toxicity; speciesism, and cisheteronormativity–have gone unaddressed. This collection has been configured to move philosophical work about/on disability beyond and outside of the artifactual strictures of research that heretofore predominant philosophical analyses with respect to disability have erected.

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