Seminar 1 Session 3 Philosophy, ethics and the politics of learning disability


Julie Allan (JA)

  • A teacher-educator (educator of teachers), with a background in education, philosophy (philosophies of difference) and ‘the arts’
  • Teaching: with respect to children with LD, teachers often harbour feelings of confusion, frustration and exhaustion – an abiding sense of guilt about how best to provide for children with LD
  • You cannot move for the mantra ‘inclusion, inclusion, inclusion’, but the children with LD rarely ‘match the texts’, and so acting meaningfully upon this mantra is extremely hard
  • Strange ‘turf wars’ (or ‘handbaggings’) are also arising between what JA calls the ‘faux paradigms of the ‘special educator’ and the ‘inclusivist’, with everyone being too ideological
  • Labelling issues too: LD appears to particularly latched on to the ‘mildly slow’ child in a world where competition is promoted, and hence middle-class parents seek a diagnosis – which also points to problematic expansions of the LD definitional net (even as state efforts are now being made to re-narrow the category for the purposes of benefit savings)
  • Philosophy: JA is attracted to taking seriously Foucault, D&G (Deleuze & Guattari), Derrida and Levinas – all offer something to the study of LD, notably a form of philosophy that is ‘optimistic’, a form of ‘experimentation’, with ‘hope’ in/for the future – we do not know how the future will work out, and we cannot, indeed should not, seek to ‘programme’ it …
  • JA reflects upon D&G’s arguments about ‘deterritorialisation’ as a way beyond the rigid/striated structures surrounding PWLD, of realising ‘creative subtraction’ from the structures – she rehearses claims about ‘the rhizome’, for getting beyond ‘arboreal’ thinking/reasoning (rooted into place) towards ‘rhizomatic’ thinking/reasoning (valuing the weed that proliferates everywhere [where the weed could be ‘ideas everywhere’)
  • JA reflects on Foucault’s later work on ‘transgression’, tackled in a subtle, agonistic manner: she wonders whether a ‘practices of the self’ model could be adopted to consider how PWLD might work upon themselves and others)
  • JA reflects upon Derrida’s aporias, borrowed from Plato’s teachings (Socrates teaching the child maths), and asking about when ‘you’ stop someone ‘in their tracks’, getting them to ‘stop making decisions’ – for Derrida, we are in the realm of textual tipping-points, which allows a framing of policy questions as ‘double contradictory imperatives’ (eg. in schools being more inclusive and raising standards [= betting better results]; competition and equal citizens: can we indeed have ands here rather than ors?) – JA tried to use aporias or paradoxes for the Special Needs Inquiry for the Scottish Government, and in conferences for educators in Continental Europe (scary …)
  • Philosophy is where you can incite/provoke – as JA seeks to do in her book Subverting. Subtracting and Inventing Learning Disabilities
  • The arts: the arts are great for producing ‘affects’, getting inside you to prompt ‘goosebumps’, and they should have a role to play in working creatively working with PWLD – not least in ‘declaring’ a metaphysical presence of otherness, but also in insisting on taking seriously the presence of, say, LD as is, not ‘air-brushed’ – the job is to stop ‘us’ in our tracks, to stop ‘us’ saying what we have (already) said
  • Challenging labels, and in thereby fostering new possibilities for inclusion (Nancy Mairs, LD writer: “as a cripple, I swagger”), and for ‘living a wilful live’
  • Pushing beyond the barriers of speech acts, to disrupt the constant speaking of the same speech acts; to network speech instead; to raise the profile of ‘minor literatures’ (from ‘minority voices’); to accomplish ‘demos-stration’ (where demos = ‘the people’); to manage the presence of those who do not usually count (after Rancière)
  • Towards the political role of the educator – in-citing, as in Plato’s gadfly, buzing about, saying ‘what about these people?’ (the PWLD)

Licia Carlson (LC)

  • LC is a philosopher, seeking to inspect what her discipline has said about LD, insofar as it has said anything; indeed, she is wishing to cope with the ‘pathology’ of how philosophy has historically regarded LD, while acknowledging the ‘excitement’ of some more recent developments
  • Questions about human reason and human ‘flourishing’ have always been issues for philosophy – asking about what exactly comprises human reason, or about what makes for a ‘flourishing’ human life, can sometimes prompt interest in limit cases (where, seemingly, reason is absent and possibilities for leading a ‘good life’ appear curtailed)
  • For some philosphers, the very definition of what is human requires you to be a fully rational being (the ‘card’ that you must carry) – the implications for PWLD are here very clear: if they are not (obviously) carrying that ‘card’ …
  • LC acknowledges the unavoidable centrality here of Cartesian dualist reasoning – many philosophers simply reproduce standard mind/body distinctions (linking across to a separating out of mental and physical disability)
  • On matters of definition: in the US, LD tends to have a narrow neuro-psychological framing, but LC wishes to adopt a broader sense (in line with other contributors to this seminar) – paying attention to both milder and severer ends of the LD continuum; accepting that autism maybe needs to be factored into the picture; accepting too the need to consider ‘acquired conditions’ (dementia, traumatic brain injury) and hence to avoid a simplistic polarising of congenital versus acquired conditions
  • LC notes how her colleagues, the bio-ethicists, will often just accept standard ‘institutional’ definitions (ie. in DSM/genetic terms) – but she would want to contest the ‘medical model’, to take seriously distinctions such as those noted above, but at the same time she would have hesitations about the ‘social model’ (where bodies potentially disappear as remotely causal bases for the differences of ‘LD’) – she might lean towards a Foucauldian sense of LD as an ‘emergent category’, structured in social relations and discursive terrains, but retaining some agnosticism about exactly what lies beyond the categories (ie. she is not a thorough-going ‘constructionist’)
  • Specifically, she wishes to challenge common (intersecting) conceptual manoeuvres present in philosophical discussion of LD
    • (1) the unproblematic stereotype – of PWLD living a ‘bad life’, a ‘diminished life’, and hence as a contrasting reference-point to what would be deemed a ‘good life’ or a ‘full life’
    • (2) the catch-call category – the Pete Singer type position which ends up equating PWLD with all imaginable entities seemingly devoid of reason (risking an unthinking mobilising PWLD in the struggle for ‘animal rights’, for instance)
    • (3) the test case – LD as a testing ground for theory: eg. a Kantian theory of duty – looking to see if PWLD offer up the exception to philosophical claims about humanity’s character, capacities, rights, etc. – the case than cannot fit, disproving a generalising claim?
    • (4) the marginal case – PWLD as the most marginal case in debates about personhood, refracted through a form of social life that does not, in certain strict philosophical terms, qualify as ‘human’
    • (5) the thought-experiment – where the philosopher needs no data, s/he can simply ‘experiment’ in thought with putting PWLD into a hypothetical thematic: a deeply problematic extreme case would be ‘when it is acceptable to kill humans?’
    • In all of these instances, LD is introduced indirectly in the service of other philosophical arguments focussing ultimately on ‘something else’, but LC wants to consider what happens if, instead, the philosopher tackles LD directly
    • (In both cases, LC qualifies, whether looking at LD directly or indirectly, it does demand inter-disciplinary alertness to what other scholars know about LD – perhaps a warning against a comfortably insular version of ‘philosophy’)
    • LC wishes to talk about what happens with a direct philosophical focus upon LD: starting from the crucial presumption that “there is something there”, that PWLD are not ‘nothing’, a ‘blankness’, the barely- if human limit case of much of the philosophising discussed above – and hence LC conceives what happens when we do ask about:
      • Personhood (what is their ‘moral status’?)
      • Flourishing (what can be their potential for a ‘good life’?)
      • Justice (what makes a ‘just life’ for them?)
      • Political representation (what can be their relationship with trans-individual political units/systems?)
      • ‘In-relation-hood’ (taking seriously that one reason why PWLD matter is precisely because they matter to others, meaning their carers/guardians/advocates)
      • Challenging assumptions (taking seriously how the realities of PWLD should be taken as a basis for questioning prevailing [neo-liberal?] societal assumptions about ‘individualism’, ‘autonomy’, ‘normalisation’, ‘same/other’ or ‘sameness/difference’ distinctions)
      • Revising other ethical/moral theories (taking seriously how their lives – defiantly lived lives – must question realms of applied ethics/bioethics [most obviously where bioethicists are claiming that pre-natal testing should be done for certain conditions, with the deeply troubling implication of identifying ‘lives that should not be lived’])
      • LC then addresses two more specific considerations, beginning with autism – a pet subject within work on ‘philosophies of mind’ – autistic individuals seemingly have no ‘theory of mind’ (they cannot discern the ‘mind’, certainly not the intentions of an-other.  Ian Hacking asks conversely how do autistic individuals define us, the ‘neurotypicals’, and what can we conclude here about relations between ‘us’ and ‘them’?
      • She then wonders about the extent to which philosophy tends to be depersonalising when it comes to PWLD: what happens if we take something like aesthetics/musical experience as a starting-point for discussion of PWLD (but not in the sense of the ‘savant’ model) rather than, say, the standard therapeutic model of how arts/music, etc., may be therapeutically useful for PWLD? – what happens if instead we posit shared experiences (beyond an ‘us/them’ binary)?
      • Leading from the specifics of this last point, but also from the broader cast of her thinking throughout her presentation, LC asks if philosophy could indeed move down an entirely different path with respect to LD (and perhaps more broadly too): moving away from questions like ‘are they persons?’ to an alternative embrace of multiple, shared humanities

Hans Reinders (HR)

  • HR is a theologian – but also a ‘free bird’ – but will circle back later to a theological dimension of his thinking about LD
  • He sees his work as inviting people (especially service providers, and notably direct support staff working with LD) to consider what they are gaining from and knowing about (the relationships that they are having with) PWLD
  • A crucial sub-point here is that such direct support staff are often neglected within debates about PWLD: increasingly, their ‘feelings’ seem of no account under managerial regimes, and their motivations seemingly count for nothing
  • A key observation is hence ‘how much of contemporary LD social policy focuses too much on institutional or service ‘access’, too little on the social relations within the institutions or services accessed’
  • Hence, HR proposes a shift towards centralising friendships, suggesting that friendships have positive transformational power, and then towards a bigger framing in terms of human flourishing (echoes of LC’s presentation)
  • Momentarily, he pauses to ask ‘what is LD?’ – a question that is ultimately unanswerable, with much contingency (it depends on what you want to know and who is asking you the question)
  • In a nod to theology, HR considers the claim that, if God had seen to bring something into creation, then by definition it must be good, must have a value, must not be removed from creation
  • Relatedly, HR considers the principle of plenitude: for many, plenitude is a good thing – if the whole of creation attests to ‘the glory of God’, then, if PWLD had not been there, they would need to have been ‘invented’ – hence, anything looking to reduce that plenitude, to limit it, to reduce the wholeness of creation, must be bad
  • HR spirals back to considering more secular matters of inclusion for PWLD: but he proposes that inclusion should not be seen as a goal in itself – indeed, without a proper context for implementing inclusion, in itself inclusion is meaningless
  • Rather, HR moves towards specifying inclusion merely as a vehicle for realising human flourishing – as a device facilitating the realisation of a ‘good life’ for PWLD, but where the latter should be less a normative judgement (‘this is the good life’), and more a question about the next possible stage achieveable in a PWLD’s narrative – linking to notions of life as an ‘endless project’
  • But HR immediately acknowledges that this framing encounters problems in situations where PWLD (and their families, carers, guardians, support workers, etc.) have been socialised into cultures of ‘low expectations’ – the bar for the next stage may hence be set very low
  • HR’s next move is to ask what happens if we start to think about PWLD offering ‘gifts’ to the rest of ‘us’ (see also EH’s presentation) – he recounts the remarkable story of Larry and his screaming, the latter understandably being seen as anything but a gift in his institutional surrounding, until it was seen what it could bring to supporting the institution’s volleyball team – his scream duly became revisioned as a gift not a curse
  • Hence one of the most important things that ‘we’ could do is to celebrate the gifts of and from PWLD – but to do this requires a great deal of ‘active’ experimentation alongside individual PWLD in their specific situations
  • Such experimentation should not be reduced to simply a matter of getting PWLD to exercise choices – which requires a possibility of individuals informed making comparisons, something not always possible for PWLD – experiments, realising gifts, contributing to plenitude, etc.: these, sadly, cannot be neatly programmed by policy regimes/interventions


  • What definitions (of LD) can travel from one ‘pocket’ to another? – from one discipline to another? – from one domain of thought-and-action to another
  • Who claims the ‘expertise’ to offer definitions and recommendations? – and note how, following LC’s presentation, a certain philosophical orthodoxy would disqualify ‘proximity’ (or, at least, personal involvement) as a viable basis for definition and recommendation
  • Returning to the notion of ‘sitting with things that are difficult’ (introduced in JC’s presentation): all of the final three presentations offer theoretically-informed cuts into how this ‘sitting with’ could maybe get turned from a negative to a potentially positive source for creating new possibilities – experimenting with the gift of PWLD and an affirmation of the ‘experimental gesture’ here
  • Resonances with AJ’s ideas about ‘purposeful living’ – about having a purpose that can be more than just trivial (as might be demanded by forced labour) – Larry has a purpose now, screaming at the volleyball courts?
  • Intriguing to reflect, following deeper logic of HR’s presentation, whether the ‘obdurate difficulties’ of LD can / should indeed be reinterpreted as a divine gift, completing the plenitude of creation – but what can such a notion really bring to the hard edges and challenges of policy, of everyday stretched practices with PWLD (under an age of austerity, etc.)?
  • But, overall, there is a sense of the immense value of relational thinking here, beyond an individual focus, which settles uneasily with the individualistic focus of, say, the ‘personalisation’  agenda

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