In The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability (Oxford University Press, 2016), Elizabeth Barnes (associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia) offers an insightful philosophical analysis of disability. Her work calls into question pervasive intuitions and assumptions that mark disability as inherently bad or problematic, and instead advances (quite compellingly) a theory of disability that is in fact neutral with respect to well-being. Utilizing the tools of analytic feminist philosophical analysis, Barnes’ examines the concept of “disability” (what it is and what we mean by it), the social implications of disability, and how disability interacts with other features of one’s life to affect one’s well-being. Along the way, she affords a significant degree of deference to the testimonies of disabled folks themselves, a unique strength of her examination. Barnes, a disabled woman herself, draws both on her personal experiences with disability, as well as her technical expertise as a feminist philosopher working in the areas of social philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics, to inform her analysis.
Barnes opens her work by articulating many ways in which philosophical engagement with disability theory has been flawed, with particular attention to the ways in which philosophical analysis with respect to disability has marginalized, obscured, or silenced the viewpoints and narratives of the disabled themselves. She hopes to correct for this both by theorizing in a deeply personal way—she herself is disabled—as well as defending the reliability and credibility of positive testimonies of the disabled. At the outset, Barnes clarifies that in the interest of simplicity, she is restricting the scope of her analysis to physical disabilities, though she is not foreclosing the possibility that what she has to say could be extended to other types of disabilities (5). She also categorizes her philosophical aims as falling within the domain of social philosophy, as opposed to applied ethics or bioethics (2). She sees her work as addressing more fundamental and foundational questions—those which ought to be clarified prior to considering applied concerns (2). Continue reading “Book Review: The Minority Body”