Over at Disabled Philosophers, we’ve been getting a lot of submissions from people expressing concern about whether their disabilities will prevent them from becoming successful philosophers. Reading these posts, I’ve inevitably started to think about to what extent the practice of philosophy as it’s currently conducted is discriminatory (particularly against the disabled – but the concerns generalize).
Let’s be clear: that the practice of philosophy excludes people with certain types of disabilities is not, by itself, enough to justify the charge that philosophy is practiced in ways which are unfair or unjust. That a discipline or practice excludes some disabled people doesn’t by itself entail any unfairness or discrimination. Because of my disability, I could not have been a neurosurgeon. Neurosurgery requires extraordinarily precise fine motor control, and most days I have the fine motor skills of a drunk toddler. The practice of neurosurgery isn’t thereby being unfair in excluding me. It’s simply that I lack skills which are essential to the practice of neurosurgery. I happen to lack those skills because of a disability, but that doesn’t mean neurosurgery is discriminatory for requiring those skills.
It’s not bad or unjust if philosophy excludes some people – even if some such exclusions are related to disability. But it is unjust if philosophy excludes people because they can’t participate in (or don’t do as well at) things which aren’t essential to the practice of philosophy. What I’ve noticed is that the concerns expressed aren’t of the form: I’m afraid that my disability will keep me from being a good philosopher. Rather, they are of the form: I’m afraid that my disability will keep me from doing the kinds of things philosophers are expected to do (things like attend conferences, give public talks, do well in high-pressure q&a sessions, hang out in bars and talk about philosophy for hours, etc).
I suspect – though I don’t have that much evidence for this – that in philosophy we haven’t given much thought to what’s essential to the practice of philosophy. And perhaps as a result, I likewise suspect that we often base judgements about philosophical quality at least in part on things that are separable from being a good philosopher (like performing well in talks, being quick on your feet, etc). If that’s the case, then the charge of discrimination is fair – and worrisome.
I’d love to hear others thoughts on this, particularly with regard to:
(i) What really is essential to the practice of philosophy? (Are the social aspects of philosophy – like giving a talk or performing well in a q&a part of what it is to be a good philosopher?)
(ii) Do we often judge philosophical quality based in part on things that aren’t essential to being a good philosopher? (Apart from the obvious, like implicit bias. I’m thinking here about things you could explicitly bring up as evidence in discussion of philosophical quality that are in fact orthogonal to philosophical quality.)