In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Disability

  • Introduction
  • Historical Perspectives
  • Modern Background Books
  • Influential Early Articles
  • Early Single- and Multiple-Author Books
  • Early-21st-Century Single- and Multiple-Author Books
  • Edited Volumes and Collections
  • Special Journal Issues and Sections
  • Handbook and Encyclopedia Entries

Philosophy Disability
David Wasserman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0303


This article concerns modern philosophical writing on disability. Disability has become a subject of sustained philosophical interest only since the late 1980s. Before then, philosophers occasionally adduced disabilities in presenting challenges to theories of justice or accounts of well-being, or in debating the allocation of scarce health-care resources or the withdrawal of life support for severely impaired neonates. In contrast, scholars in other disciplines had written extensively about disability and often made ethical claims about the status or treatment of people with disabilities. A distinct field of disability studies had emerged in the 1980s. Articles focusing on disability did not begin to appear in philosophy journals until 1987, and it was another decade before disability became a frequent topic of philosophical debate; the growth in interest was informed in part by the field of disability studies. Since 2000, there have been numerous philosophical and interdisciplinary articles, anthologies, and other books on disability; according to the Philosopher’s Index, there were over five times as many publications with “disabilities” as a subject between 2000 and 2014 than between 1985 and 1999. Because disability is a philosophical topic that has emerged only since the late 20th century, this article will begin with two historical sections, on the major articles and books before 2000. These sections do not serve to pay homage to the past, but to introduce some of the major themes that were developed and refined in the next fifteen years of philosophical writing: What is a disability? What impact does disability, or specific disabilities, have on well-being? What does justice require for people with disabilities? These issues are interwoven in most of the philosophers writing on disability; many argue that understanding disability as an interaction between biological endowment and the physical and social environment is necessary to assess the relevance of disability for well-being and justice. The next section covers anthologies and journal symposia. Starting in 2000, much of the philosophical writing on disability has been written for edited volumes or journal issues that cover a range of topics. The following section describes the fairly small number of single-authored books since 2000 on philosophy and disability. The remaining sections deal with the many articles and few books addressing specific topics.

Historical Perspectives

A general notion of “disability,” encompassing specific disabilities such as blindness and paralysis, was apparently not recognized before the late 19th century, when the emerging concepts of statistical and biological normality yielded corresponding notions of deviation. And even well into the next century, what is now called “disability” was grouped with “moral degeneracy” and criminality as falling on the lower tail of a normal distribution of valued social traits (Davis 2010). One should not expect to find philosophical or other writing on “disability” any earlier than the 20th century, as opposed to writing on specific disabilities. For this reason, all the annotations in this brief section are of modern work on the significance of historical writing. Philosophical interest before the 1800s was largely in sensory disabilities, and largely in sight—a natural subject for British and other empiricists. Sensory disabilities presented, and appeared to provide answers to, questions about the role and relationship of different senses in acquiring knowledge of the external world. The “Molyneux” problem, perhaps the most discussed disability topic in 17th- and 18th-century philosophy, concerned the relationship of sight to touch and the epistemic priority of the two senses (Degenaar and Lokhorst 2011). This debate was epistemological; it did not concern the lives of people who lacked sight for various periods of time and then acquired it. Similarly, although Immanuel Kant did not directly address the moral status of humans with cognitive disabilities that preclude the active exercise of rationality, one scholar argues against the prevailing assumptions that Kant’s empirical theories commit him to the position that all human beings have the same basic moral status (Kain 2009). The only major Enlightenment philosophical works to address disabilities in a broader context may have been Denis Diderot’s letters on blindness and deafness (Margo, et al. 2013).

  • Davis, Lennard J. “Constructing Normalcy.” In The Disabilities Studies Reader. 3d ed. Edited by Lennard J. Davis, 3–19. New York: Routledge, 2010.

    Illustrates how the idea of the normal that emerged in 19th-century industrial societies gave rise to a general notion of the disabled body and eugenic programs for preventing disability.

  • Degenaar, Marjolein, and Gert-Jan Lokhorst. “Molyneux’s Problem.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2011.

    Reviews the debate on whether a once-blind person acquiring vision for the first time could immediately recognize shapes previously known only by touch. Traces the debate from John Locke, who insisted that the connection would have to be learned, to more-recent attempts to test his conclusion empirically.

  • Kain, Patrick. “Kant’s Defense of Human Moral Status.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 47.1 (2009): 59–101.

    Disputes the prevailing view that Kant restricted moral worth to beings capable of rational deliberation. Rather, his biological and psychological theories commit him to the inclusive view “that existence as a living member of the human species is taken as a sufficient indication of basic moral status. . . .” (p. 100).

  • Margo, Curtis E., Lynn E. Harman, and Don B. Smith. “Blindness and the Age of Enlightenment: Diderot’s Letter on the Blind.” JAMA Ophthalmology 131.1 (2013): 98–102.

    Describes the significance of Diderot’s letter both in the Enlightenment project and in his own life. Although the letter discussed epistemological issues raised by blindness, it also examined the rich lives of blind people, including a French distiller and a Cambridge mathematics professor.

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