The social model of disability as a case study of social ontology

Ontology is the study of what kinds of entities there are in the world and how they relate to each other. As Effingham (2013, p.1) explains, “You will not find ontologists rummaging around your wardrobe” cataloguing everything they find. Rather, the idea is to conceptualise more broadly the kinds of things there are, including material and abstract “things” like numbers and colours. Social ontology concentrates on entities relevant to social theorising at various levels of explanation from the sub-personal (including unconscious processes like those controlling finger tips on keyboards) to people, their interactions, institutions and beyond.

Debates in social ontology, such as on ontological individualism or emergentism, can be abstract and their relevance hard to grasp. There has even been a case to “rid social sciences of ontology altogether – of all philosophized metaphysics of how the social world is” (Kivinen and Piiroinen, 2007, p.99). This short post tries to make it clearer why it’s important to think about ontology, using an example from disability activism.

In 1975, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, a group of disability activists, published a series of fundamental principles which challenged the ontology of disability:

“In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. […] For us as disabled people it is absolutely vital that we get this question of the cause of disability quite straight, because on the answer depends the crucial matter of where we direct our main energies in the struggle for change. We shall clearly get nowhere if our efforts are chiefly directed not at the cause of our oppression, but instead at one of the symptoms.”

Here a distinction is made between impairment and disability. From this perspective, it doesn’t make sense to say that someone “has a disability”; individual people can have impairments, but it is society which determines whether someone is disabled. Note how the conceptualisation is used to unite people behind one social struggle.

This guide from the activist group Disabled People Against Cuts explains how social barriers cause disability:

“… we live in a society that’s designed by, built for, and used by non disabled people. Because of poor historic attitudes to disabled people […] disabled people were effectively locked away in hospitals, sanatoriums, in care homes or other kinds of institution.

“And that meant that we were excluded from the development of the way our society works, the way our buildings are designed, transport systems, education systems, machines and appliances, leisure activities and the world of work anything really that you care to think about was designed at a time when disabled people weren’t included in the process.

“And that means that all these things don’t work in a way that enables us to use them.

“And the upshot of all that is that in hundreds of different ways, some big, some seemingly small, its difficult for us to take a full part in all kinds of activities that non-disabled people take for granted.

“So we believe that its not our impairments that disable us, it is the social barriers that disable us. Our own impairments we can adapt and/or use aids to overcome, but social barriers are out of our control.”

Whether someone with a particular impairment becomes disabled is also affected by scientific and technological advances. For instance, many people who have a visual impairment wear glasses or contact lenses and wouldn’t consider themselves disabled (see Slorach 2016, p. 37).

A related example is illustrated in this piece on the difference between deaf and Deaf identity:

“To be ‘deaf’ (small d) is to fit into the medical definition of deafness as something to be cured and eradicated. Being deaf means you have a hearing loss, but you choose or don’t feel able to function within the Deaf Community. […] Deaf – with a capital “D” (and occasionally with capital E, A and F too) – is used to refer to people who are culturally Deaf. These people actively use British Sign Language; they see themselves as being culturally Deaf and part of the Deaf community. […] I consider myself to be culturally Deaf; this is my Deaf Identity. […] I don’t see it as a disability – there is nothing I feel I cannot do – rather, I see it as an important aspect of my character that makes and shapes me.”

These conceptualisations of impairment and disability, social barriers, adjustments, aids, deaf and Deaf identity, concern ontology. The debates on these topics occur naturally in social struggles and discussions of social policy, whether or not explicitly articulated as being about ontology. They also have clear implication for how social research is carried out and understood.

References

Effingham, N. (2013). An introduction to ontology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kivinen, O., & Piiroinen, T. (2007). Sociologizing Metaphysics and Mind: A Pragmatist Point of View on the Methodology of the Social Science. Human Studies, 30, 97–114.

Slorach, R. (2016). A very capitalist condition: a history and politics of disability. London: Bookmarks Publications.

Measurements presuppose theories

(cited in Gillies’ “Philosophical theories of probability”): 

“Against this view [operationalism] it can be shown that measurements presuppose theories. There is no measurement without a theory and no operation which can be satisfactorily described in non-theoretical terms. The attempts to do so are always circular; for example, the description of the measurement of length needs a (rudimentary) theory of heat and temperature-measurement; but these in turn involve measurements of length.” (Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 1963)

Distress

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“The address that Moore delivered to the British Academy, entitled ‘Proof of an External World,’ caused him a great deal of torment in its preparation. He worked hard at it, but the concluding portion displeased him, and he could not get it right as the time approached for his appearance before the Academy. On the day of the lecture he was still distressed about the ending of the paper. As he was about to leave the house to take the train to London, Mrs. Moore said, in order to comfort him, ‘Cheer up! I’m sure they will like it.’ To which Moore made this emphatic reply: ‘If they do, they’ll be wrong!’” — Norman Malcolm (hat tip: Martin Kusch).

The role of measurement in science

The road from scientific law to scientific measurement can rarely be traveled in the reverse direction. To discover quantitative regularity one must normally know what regularity one is seeking and one’s instruments must be designed accordingly; even then nature may not yield consistent or generalizable results without a struggle. […] I venture the following paradox: The full and intimate quantification of any science is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Nevertheless, it is not a consummation that can effectively be sought by measuring. As in individual development, so in the scientific group, maturity comes most surely to those who know how to wait.” (Kuhn, 1961, pp. 189-190)

Kuhn, T. S. (1961). The function of measurement in modern physical science. Isis, 52(2), 161-193.

A kõan about why science is tricky

Kõan:

Shuzan held out his short staff and said: “If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”

Mumon’s Commentary:

If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. It cannot be expressed with words and it cannot be expressed without words. Now say quickly what it is.

Mumon’s Poem:

Holding out the short staff,
He gave an order of life or death
Positive and negative interwoven,
Even Buddha’s and patriarchs cannot escape this attack.

Nagel on arousal and meaning

“Suppose a man and a woman, whom we may call Romeo and Juliet, are at opposite ends of a cocktail lounge, with many mirrors on the walls which permit unobserved observation, and even mutual unobserved observation. Each of them is sipping a martini and studying other people in the mirrors. At some point Romeo notices Juliet. He is moved, somehow, by the softness of her hair and the diffidence with which she sips her martini, and this arouses him sexually. […] Romeo senses Juliet, rather than merely noticing her. At this stage he is aroused by an unaroused object, so he is more in the sexual grip of his body than she of hers.

“Let us suppose, however, that Juliet now senses Romeo in another mirror on the opposite wall, though neither of them yet knows that he is seen by the other (the mirror angles provide three-quarter views). Romeo then begins to notice in Juliet the subtle signs of sexual arousal: heavy-lidded stare, dilating pupils, faint flush, et cetera. This of course renders her much more bodily, and he not only notices but senses this as well. His arousal is nevertheless still solitary. But now, cleverly calculating the line of her stare without actually looking her in the eyes, he realizes that it is directed at him through the mirror on the opposite wall. That is, he notices, and moreover senses, Juliet sensing him. This is definitely a new development, for it gives him a sense of embodiment not only through his own reactions but through the eyes and reactions of another. Moreover, it is separable from the initial sensing of Juliet; for sexual arousal might begin with a person’s sensing that he is sensed and being assailed by the perception of the other person’s desire rather than merely by the perception of the person.

“But there is a further step. Let us suppose that Juliet, who is a little slower than Romeo, now senses that he senses her. This puts Romeo in a position to notice, and be aroused by, her arousal at being sensed by him. He senses that she senses that he senses her. This is still another level of arousal, for he becomes conscious of his sexuality through his awareness of its effect on her and of her awareness that this effect is due to him. […]”

“Another example of such reflexive mutual recognition is to be found in the phenomenon of meaning, which appears to involve an intention to produce a belief or other effect in another by bringing about his recognition of one’s intention to produce that effect. (That result is due to H. P. Grice, whose position I shall not attempt to reproduce in detail.) Sex has a related structure: it involves a desire that one’s partner be aroused by the recognition of one’s desire that he or she be aroused.”

(Nagel, T., 1969, Sexual Perversion. The Journal of Philosophy, 66, 5-17.)

Haven’t mentioned free will for a while…

In an introduction to psychodynamic ideas, Jonathan Shedler writes (p. 42):

“If behavior were unavoidably determined, there would be no reason to practice psychoanalytic therapy or, for that matter, any form of therapy.”

Although I’m not sure about free will, I don’t think this is a necessary consequence of having no free will. And maybe that there might be a reason is important for therapists with clients who reject free will.

Suppose we have no free will. Two claims still seem difficult to refute:

  • We experience stuff, much of it fun (some of it not). The phenomenological feeling which goes along for the ride doesn’t seem to care about free will. Related to this, I think it’s interesting that we still go to the cinema and read books even though we know the ending has already been decided: we seem to derive great pleasure from finding out what happens next.
  • Chatting to people partially determines our future experience (sometimes fun!) and behaviour.

Then therapy is just another link in the big causal network in the universe. Hopefully it’s more likely to improve someone’s experience than some other links, however unavoidable and pre-determined going to see the therapist might be.

The rational agent

“… the rational agent is not simply the one who follows the normative canons of logic and probability theory, and neither is she the one who follows adapted heuristics for action choice or ‘somatic markers’. Rather the rational agent is the critically self-aware agent; the one who is aware why she acts, and who modifies her own behaviour according to her self-knowledge. As Karl Popper (1990) wrote, ‘A rationalist is simply someone for whom it is more important to learn than to be proved right’…”

Lambie, J. A. (2008). On the irrationality of emotion and the rationality of awareness. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 946-971

What is cognition? Again

A while back I posted a list of quotations attempting to define cognition.  In discussing and searching for these, I came to the conclusion that definitions of these kinds of global, general, concepts are only useful as department labels. They allow people to work out, vaguely, to whom they could talk to learn about a topic that interests them.  Concepts like “cognition” should be defined with that goal in mind, in a way that causes as least confusion as possible.  For instance it seems likely that separating cognition and emotion, or cognition and perception, or equating cognition with conscious deliberative thought, are all bad ideas.

Adams (2010) likes definitions.  He suggests that philosophers ask cognitive scientists:

of the processes which are cognitive, what (exactly) makes them cognitive? This is the question that will really irritate, and, I’ve discovered, really interest them. It will interest them because it is a central question to the entire discipline of the cognitive sciences, and it will irritate them because it is a question that virtually no one is asking.  [emphasis original]

He gives some examples of processes which are clearly to him not cognitive, e.g., processes that regulate blood sugar levels, thermo-regulatory processes such as capillary constriction and dilation.

He also provides a list of necessary conditions for a process to be cognitive:

  1. Cognitive processes involve states that are semantically evaluable.
  2. The contents carried by cognitive systems do not depend for their content on other minds.
  3. Cognitive contents can be false or even empty, and hence are detached from the actual environmental causes.
  4. Cognitive systems and processes cause and explain in virtue of their representational content.

This all left me rather cold.  I don’t understand what this list helps to explain.  I’m not sure it’s even wrong.

Why not, for instance, allow cognitive processes regulate blood sugar levels?  If, at an abstract level of analysis, this turns out to be useful, for instance if performing a task which may be analysed in a cognitive fashion seems to influence blood sugar levels, then why not make it a cognitive process?

The word “cognitive” seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth so maybe we should stop talking about “cognitive processes” altogether.  As I wrote in a previous post:

It used to be considered bad form to refer to something as a neural process unless it referred to synapses, but is this still the case? There are various levels of “neural” from absence of neural due to lesions and BOLD activation patterns, down to vesicle kissing and gene expression. Maybe behavioral neuroscience is allowed up another level to more abstract representations currently called “mental” or “cognitive”, and the mental can be returned to refer to the what-it-feels-like.  Similarly maybe psychologists are behavioral neuroscientists focusing on an abstract level of explanation.

That probably wouldn’t help either.  If only we could find a pill to take which makes us less anxious about the meaning of individual words and phrases.

Reference

Adams, F. (2010). Why we still need a mark of the cognitive. Cognitive Systems Research, 11, 324-331