Thomas Nadelhoffer

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Thomas Nadelhoffer

Dear Professor O'Donovan,

Thanks for the illuminating interview! There's a lot to digest. For now, I had one quick request for clarification: In the section where you talk about evolutionary psychology, it was a bit unclear to me how your criticisms of claims about rape and violence or homosexuality fit in with your claims about the modularity of mind. The latter thesis seems more innocuous to me than the former. So, I was hoping you might say more about your concerns about this kind of research in the philosophy of mind. Thanks in advance!

M O'Donovan

Hello Professor Nadelhoffer,
Thanks very much for your comments and request, and for taking time to read the interview. What I say in that part of the interview can certainly be clarified, as it condenses my thoughts on two related but separable topics. My DSQ essay, that Shelley references, gives a more detailed account of the connections between evolutionary psychology and modularity of mind, and those kinds of examples, than I’ll give here, but I can definitely make it clearer. I’m making a couple of different points at once.
1) I chose these examples to highlight why I think what I’m saying matters to philosophers, and others, interested in social justice. Evolutionary psychology has made its way into public consciousness in some pretty noxious forms.
2) I want to make clear that in an important area of research in philosophy of mind – modularity of mind – justification for certain models of mental functioning rely on evolutionary psychology.
3) This is important because the methodology and assumptions used by this group of evolutionary psychologists are flawed, and, consequently, the use of their research findings weakens claims made about modularity.
4) More importantly, the uncritical adoption of these findings by philosophers of mind working on modularity, combined with acceptance of the relevant modularity theses as helpful and/or accurate models of mental functioning, ends up reinforcing the unrecognized (but nevertheless present) flaws in the original research.
5) And, that matters because the flaws are ones that many feminist scholars have pointed out are extremely harmful to women, non-heterosexuals, our general understanding of what gender and sex are, and have dangerous implications for conceptions of race and discussions of racism. Feminist evolutionists are also critical of evolutionary psychology.
6) Finally, what ties all of this to discussions of intersectionality and disability is that almost none of the feminist critiques talk about the implications of these flawed findings and their acceptance for disabled persons and conceptions of disability. When I discovered this, I went looking for analyses in Disability Studies instead, but found no substantive discussion of it there, either. Now that I know this is the case, and wrote about it in DSQ, I am working on developing an account of what the implications are, of both evolutionary psychology and modularity of mind theories, for how we think about and reinforce problematic notions of ability and disability, particularly cognitive ability and disability, in philosophy and more broadly. So I’ll have more to say about that soon.
[See the “Feminist Philosophy of Biology” entry in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 27.1 (2012), a special issue on feminist perspectives on evolutionary psychology, for the feminist critiques, and Kim Q. Hall’s essay in the Hypatia issue, "Not Much to Praise in Such Seeking and Finding: Evolutionary Psychology, the Biological Turn in the Humanities, and the Epistemology of Ignorance" for a detailed discussion of how and why the flaws, and the lack of recognition of those flaws, generates harm in discussions of race (and, to some degree, disability). A good summary of feminist evolutionists’ criticisms is found in Laurette T. Liesen’s "Women, Behavior, and Evolution: Understanding the Debate between Feminist Evolutionists and Evolutionary Psychologists" in Politics and the Life Sciences 26 (1):51-70. (2007)]

Thomas Nadelhoffer

Thanks for your very helpful reply! I now have even more articles to add to my reading list. While I am familiar with many of the criticisms of evolutionary psychology, I admittedly hadn't thought about how these criticisms might impact work in philosophy of mind having to do with the modularity thesis. So, I greatly appreciate your having given me this food for thought!

Shelley Tremain

Maeve, in your interview, we didn't broach the topic of institutional barriers you've confronted, personal prejudices you've encountered, or other forms of ableism with which you've had to contend either as a student, a faculty member, a department chair, or all three of these. Would you like to address these matters now in comments?

M O'Donovan

I'm delighted you found it helpful, and thank you for saying so. It made my day!

M O'Donovan

HI Shelley,
Sure. There are a number of institutional barriers worth mentioning: service expectations; the tenure clock; the standard prioritizing of institutional resources; the use of time to degree in rankings; and, comprehensive exams, to name a few. As for my own experience, the personal costs have been high and the prejudice has been real. I’ll start with those.
I think the biggest personal cost of my disability is a social life, by which I mean daily interactions with friends and community members through which life is enjoyed, understood, shared, and supported. Since I don’t have children, I am able to work at night and on weekends, and the only sick days I take are for myself. I want to do well, so I work. I spend so much of my time working. (So do many people, I know; it’s just that it takes more time for me to produce the same, required results than a non-ADHD person in similar circumstances). When I’m not working, I’m recovering. My auditory processing disorder makes talking, in person or on the phone, really tiring. I rarely get an oral question right, unless I repeat it and discuss it with the asker until the question is clear. Thank God for texts and email. Noise of any kind, loud or not loud, is distracting, and filtering it out isn’t a matter of will power. Medication helps, but it only helps to a certain point. I have to stop, tune it all out (ear plugs and eye masks) for hours every day—and sometimes longer--just to keep functioning. I’m fortunate to have a few truly great friends who understand and accept these facts about me, but my limitations on this front have certainly cost me. Were it not for them and the kindness and collegiality of my work community, for which I am deeply grateful, my life would be smaller.
In the interest of a timely reply, I’m submitting this partial answer now and will post about prejudice in the profession and the institutional barriers I mention in my next comments.

M O'Donovan

In thinking about institutional barriers to success, using an intersectional framework, money, time and bodies matter. Before we begin adding in the facts of economic discrimination against women and minorities, the high correlation between disability and poverty and race and economic status, the refusal of many institutions to provide benefits to same sex partners, such as medical leave to care for a partner or health insurance when needed, research documenting that white men do the least amount of service work as faculty and black women do the most, and white men still get tenure and promotion at disproportionately higher rates, we need to start by recognizing a simple fact. In general, persons living with disability need more time on task in order to produce the same or equally good results. Some need more time to get places due to mobility issues (and subsequent reliance on assistive technologies that are not always available – such as ramps, elevators, certain software programs, etc.). Others need long or frequent breaks due to fatigue, medication demands, hospitalizations. Many need to set up accommodations, a frustratingly slow and frequently incompletely or un- successful process. Asking for such time is expensive – financially and psychologically. It requires testing, medical evaluations, and documentation, consults with accommodation coordinators and/or human resources, consults with other interested parties (in academia – with faculty, deans and chairs that evaluate faculty, foundations that provide grants, publishers, etc.), all of which is time away from research, pedagogical work, and service work (and family, community, hobbies, social life,…) and much of which exacts a heavy psychological toll. Nevertheless, graduate programs are rated on time to degree, punishing rather than rewarding programs for accepting students with disabilities. Once accepted, graduate students who ask that the all-important comprehensive exam be spread out over more days, or taken in a non-standard format (such as on a computer, written instead of oral, oral instead of written, etc.) are perceived as asking for an unfair advantage—a perception that is protected by law, as an “unreasonable” accommodation. Faculty are evaluated according to a randomly set tenure clock that doesn’t reflect the demographic changes in faculty that schools insist they want to see. On the list of institutional priorities, resources and support staff for addressing disability and providing assistive technologies and other accommodations are at the bottom--even parking gets more advocacy at a faculty meeting than the needs of disabled community members--so many people have to provide assistive technologies for themselves—another unshared cost that requires more income and thus more hours of work (if you’re lucky enough to find it). These are just a few of the institutional barriers, but hopefully enough to get us started thinking about the issue.

Shelley Tremain

Thanks for your responses to my query, Maeve. You have addressed the issues in a more general way than I had expected, but the fact that you have done so may open up a broader discussion about institutional barriers and systemic inaccessibility.

M O'Donovan

You're welcome, Shelley.

In that case, I'll just add two representative, not exceptional, cases of prejudice and ableism I've encountered professionally. Both in exactly the context where you would least expect to find them -- which is why they cut so deeply.

At a conference session on philosophy and disability, a feminist philosopher who works on disability said to my face that ADHD is not a real disability, it's just an excuse.

At a conference on philosophy and cognitive disability, breaks between talks were not only short they were eventually eliminated because we were running behind schedule. In announcing the elimination of breaks, the organizer said it wouldn't be a problem because we were intellectuals, that we would just power through. I don't know if "power through" was the exact phrase, but it certainly was the idea. I do know that "intellectuals" was the word used, because I couldn't believe I was hearing it. My need for breaks had just qualified me as a non-intellectual.

[There has been great work done on accessibility and conferences, and a good place to start learning about the issues and how to address them is the Composing Access website:]

Shelley Tremain

It's very disappointing to read that you had those experiences. I am glad that you noted them, however, because you've drawn attention to one practice -- namely,
ensuring that there are adequate breaks between conference sessions -- that conference organizers can easily incorporate into their conference-planning to increase the accessibility of their conferences (workshops, etc.). Many people need such breaks, for a variety of reasons. Inclusion of disabled philosophers requires that current expectations about time, productivity, effort, among other things, be re-evaluated and revised.

Shelley Tremain

I also meant to thank you for posting the link to the Composing Access website. That's a very valuable resource that everyone should check out.

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