442. Scott Williams on Disability and the New World

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In this interview we learn about the main issues in modern-day philosophy of disability, and the relevance of this topic for the European encounter with the Americas.



Further Reading

• S. Williams, "When Personhood Goes Wrong in Ethics and Philosophical Theology: Disability, Ableism, and (Modern) Personhood," in The Lost Sheep in the Philosophy of Religion: New Perspectives on Disability, Gender, Race and Animals, eds. B. Hereth and K. Timpe (Oxford: 2019), 264-90.
• S. Williams, “Disability, Ableism, and Anti-Ableism in Medieval Latin Philosophy and Theology,” in The Edinburgh Critical History of the Middle Ages and Renaissance Philosophy, eds. R.A. Lee and A. LaZella (Edinburgh: 2020), 37-57.
• S. Williams (ed.), Disability in Medieval Christian Philosophy and Theology (Oxford: 2020). [Includes the paper by Miguel J. Romero from which Prof Williams quotes in the interview, and his own paper, "Personhood, Ethics, and Disability: A Comparison of Byzantine, Boethian, and Modern Concepts of Personhood," at 80-108.]


Andrew on 31 March 2024

A question

If you ever get there (big if) will you talk about the disability movements that were happening across the world in the 20th century? I have especially in mind the UK's movement and UPIAS, the first disabled led disability politics organisation that came up with what we now call the "social model of disability", although that specific phrase comes from Mike Oliver, UPIAS used different phrases for the idea like the "social definition of disability" etc.

This movement has in general been forgotten in the modern day. Everyone remembers Stonewall for gay rights for example, but nothing about disability. So having this podcast cover it would be very useful. Although, considering the pace of the podcast, I would hope we have more attention to it by then anyway haha.

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 31 March 2024


I think that is something that would be worth mentioning in an episode on philosophy of disability, yes (actually Scott alluded to it in this interview). But this would of course be a long way off!

b on 31 March 2024

Didn’t you say last episode…

Didn’t you say last episode that Aristotle did say that non-greeks were natural slaves due to the climate? Do you agree with Prof Williams’ reading? Or is it still disputed? 

In reply to by b

Peter Adamson on 31 March 2024


Yes, well noticed. I wrote and recorded that previous episode before this interview and this conversation made me think again, because the two episodes do indeed have different readings of Aristotle. Aristotle does (I am pretty sure) say that non-Greeks are "slavish" so I think the question is whether that means they are on a par with "natural slaves." I need to look into this further though for the book version, make sure I actually agree with what I said in the previous episode! 

John B-H on 2 April 2024


To support his case against “ableism”, Joel Michael Reynolds draws on the concept of the “normate”, which picks out

“the veiled subject position of the cultural self, the figure outlined by the array of deviant others whose marked bodies shore up the normate’s boundaries. The term normate usefully designates the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings.”

He continues: “Social factors always contribute to the creation and maintenance of the normate in any given sociohistorical context.” This would seem to align with Prof Williams’ insistence that we should (always) try to understand the concept of personhood within different sociohistorical contexts ? 

If there are many ways to be non-normate - that is, many ways to be disabled - then there may be many ways to be (seen/categorised as) a non-person, or even a non-human. David Livingstone Smith in discussing the “Paradoxes of Dehumanisation” perhaps draws correspondences between colonialism then and there (16th Century Americas) and now (with politicians speaking publicly of “human animals”):

“we dehumanise others because we want to kill them or oppress them, rather than the other way round.”

On a separate point, the justification of empire as a moral mission - of civilising “backward” peoples - also persists. Caroline Elkins, in her history of the British Empire (A Legacy of Violence) , quotes J S Mill, for whom liberty “is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties … We may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage.” 

As Elkins explains, Mill offered “a conception of paternal despotism…liberal imperialism, which denied sovereignty to brown and Black peoples around the world, while holding out the promise of reform.”

Xavier on 4 April 2024


Really a great episode Peter ranks as one of my favourites with a guest. Long time listener!

Thanks for pursuing this project and your liveliness and energy!

Looking forward to your exploration of the coming century!

Isabella on 6 April 2024



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