Why You Shouldn’t Take Too Seriously This Entry on Disability in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Within both the discipline and profession of philosophy, the exact nature of the differences between two methodological approaches—namely, (so-called) analytic philosophy and (so-called) continental philosophy—has been a contested matter and source of controversy for quite some time, in part because these approaches embody disparate institutional positions with respect to status and prestige.

Although analytic philosophy continues to be central to the discipline and analytic philosophers continue to be tendentiously esteemed in the profession—as evidenced by (among other things) the book lists of the most prominent academic publishers, faculty rosters of the most prestigious departments, placement records of these departments, and content of the most highly-ranked journals—Foucault scholars, critical phenomenologists, new materialists, existentialists, and everyone else who gets lumped under the banner of “continental philosophy” remain subordinated and marginalized within the discipline and profession, widely perceived by many (if not most) analytic philosophers as less rigorous, less serious, and not really “philosophical” at all.

While “continental” philosophers ignore the ideas and arguments of analytic philosophers at their peril due to the centrality of analytic philosophical discourse to the tradition, discipline, and current profession of philosophy, many analytic philosophers themselves are, alternatively, uninformed about the main historical figures of so-called continental philosophy and unfamiliar with the work that their colleagues who draw on authors, ideas, and arguments in the aforementioned areas produce.

For example, in their entry to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) on models and definitions of disability, David Wasserman and Sean Aas (2022) proudly display their bias for the work of analytic philosophers of disability, while demonstrating their lack of familiarity with alternative philosophical approaches to disability. In particular, Wasserman and Aas discount my work in philosophy of disability on the basis of their misunderstanding of Foucault’s claims about the relationship between knowledge, truth, and power. Foucault and I are the only non-analytic (disabled) philosophers mentioned or cited in this SEP entry.

In an especially awkward section of the SEP entry, that is, these authors argue that my approach to disability, which draws on Foucault, is no more original than Foucault’s own (as they put it) “famous claim” that “knowledge is power.” As seasoned readers of Foucault will recognize, however, Wasserman and Aas, insofar as they attribute to Foucault this reductive understanding of the relation between knowledge, truth, and power, have reproduced a common misinterpretation of his work. Foucault’s understanding of the relation between knowledge, truth, and power was far more complex and complicated than this misinterpretation of him implies.

Foucault’s neologism power/knowledge was designed to suggest that power and knowledge are mutually constitutive and reciprocal rather than identical and isomorphic, as Wasserman and Aas indicate. As Daniele Lorenzini (2023) notes, furthermore, in Foucault’s subsequent and more sophisticated reflections on the topic, he characterized the relation between these phenomena in terms of the government of subjects in relation to truth, dispensing with the term power/knowledge altogether.

Ultimately, however, Wasserman and Aas, in order to dismiss my description of the apparatus of disability, invoke the “reliability of the commonsense judgments and linguistic intuitions appealed to by rival analytic definitions” of the concept of disability (Wasserman and Aas 2022). Yet as Robin Dembroff—one of a growing number of analytic feminist philosophers who themselves critique the oppressive and hostile character of the methodology and culture of analytic philosophy—has asked: “Whose commonsense constitutes philosophically legitimate commonsense? Whose pretheoretical concepts and terms constrain philosophical inquiry? And whose intuitions are philosophical intuitions?” (Dembroff 2020, 403; see also Rodier and Brennan, forthcoming).

That Wasserman and Aas did not equitably consider alternative—i.e., non-analytic—philosophical approaches to disability in their SEP entry evinces a dismissive demeanor that contributes to asymmetrical relations of power in philosophy and places undue limits on philosophical work with respect to disability. As Tina Fernandes Botts (2018) writes,

in general, the culture of analytic philosophy is hostile to women, persons of color, persons with disabilities, persons with non-binary gender identities, persons from underprivileged upbringings and backgrounds, those working on philosophical questions outside of a very narrow list of what are considered acceptable or philosophically reputable areas of specialization, and continental philosophy in general. This well-known hostility has created an environment in which those other than straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gender, economically secure males who work in a few narrow areas of philosophy are marginalized and excluded from the conversations, institutions, professional conferences, and power structures that constitute the philosophical mainstream. Since it is philosophers from these marginalized and excluded populations who usually work on philosophical questions dealing with race, gender, disability, and sexuality, … these sorts of philosophical questions are also, in the main, excluded from the philosophical mainstream (and simultaneously from mainstream respect). (57-58)

Botts (2018) maintains that the disregard for historical and social context, which typifies the analytic approach to philosophy, renders the approach inadequate for critical philosophical inquiry about subjecting social categories such as race, gender, and disability. As Botts explains it, “Methodological tools for doing philosophy that take into account the historical context of the phenomenon under consideration (such as are often used in the continental tradition) are arguably better suited for examining questions of race and gender than acontextual or ahistorical methodological tools (such as are often used …in the analytic tradition)” (51).

For Botts, the methodologies of continental philosophy facilitate a more complete approach to the study of (say) race, gender, and disability than the methodologies of analytic philosophy alone typically provide because the former methodologies take account of the historical emergence and vicissitudes of social and political phenomena such as race, gender, material inequalities, and legacies of structural oppressions, as well as the ways in which these social and political phenomena shape the experiences of the people subjected to them and are shaped by these experiences. As she (60) puts it, texts that can be situated squarely in the continental tradition generally embody a strong historical consciousness that precludes consideration of them without reference to some historical context. Indeed, Botts suggests that this claim about the indispensability of historical context can, arguably, be extrapolated to objects of philosophical contemplation in general, in addition to its incorporation into analyses of social categories such as race, transgender, impairment, and class or apparatuses of social power such as racism, cisgender, ableism, or classism (60-61).  


Botts, Tina Fernandes. 2018. “Race and Method: The Tuvel Affair.” Philosophy Today 62 (1): 51-72.

Dembroff, Robin. 2020. “Cisgender Commonsense and Philosophy’s Transgender Trouble.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 7 (3): 399-406.

Lorenzini, Daniele. 2023. “Reason Versus Power: Genealogy, Critique, and Epistemic Injustice.” The Monist 105: 541-557.

Rodier, Kristen and Samantha Brennan. Forthcoming. “Would You Kill the Fat Man Hypothetical? Fat Stigma in Philosophy.” In The Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability, edited by Shelley Lynn Tremain. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Wasserman, David and Sean Aas. 2022. “Disability: Definitions and Models.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2022/entries/disability/&gt;.

10 Responses

  1. Michelle Hewitt

    My life. The pages I could write about things that are spoken of as “common sense” about disability that while they may be common they certainly make no sense.

    I’m also struck by the lack of understanding of Foucault’s thoughts on power, as this kinetic stored “energy” for want of a better word early on a Sunday morning, rather than the “common” assumption of power being the enacted terminal phase we see readily in society – the output rather than the process, the rule’s consequences rather than the danger in the rule’s potential and so on.

    Thank you for this excellent piece, Shelley.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ok, Wasserman and Aas ignore – are ignorant of – the Continental tradition.

    You write: ”Although analytic philosophy continues to be central to the discipline and analytic philosophers continue to be tendentiously esteemed in the profession—as evidenced by (among other things) the book lists of the most prominent academic publishers, faculty rosters of the most prestigious departments, placement records of these departments, and content of the most highly-ranked journals”

    “Central to the discipline”? Could you please take off your Anglo-North-American sunglasses. In Europe and South America (and things will also be different in Asia.) the Continental tradition is still going strong.


      1. Let’s not impute extraneous things to me. That would be so unphiloso Just own up that your piece gives the impression that Anglo-American philosophy is central to the discipline. It isn’t.


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