Scott Williams on Disability and the New World

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.

Audio Episode:
Podcast series

Transcript: History of Philosophy 442, Scott Williams on Disability and the New World

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: So we're going to be talking about the interplay of these two problems or fields. So on the one hand, philosophy of disability, and on the other hand, what we've just been covering in podcasts over the last couple of episodes, which is the encounter between the Europeans and the Americans. I thought we could start by talking about what philosophy of disability is, because this will probably be an unfamiliar concept to a lot of listeners. Can you explain what philosophy of disability is, or maybe just say like, what are some of the issues or questions that get covered under that heading?

Scott Williams: Yeah, the philosophy of disability as it's emerged in the English context or the American and English context is a response to social movements in 20th century in America and England about the disability rights movement in terms of theorizing about disability. You even have people like Michelle Foucault talking about the way doctors treat patients. And that played some kind of role in theorizing about an early theory about what disability is. And so in the history of social movements in the 20th century, there are different ways of thinking about what a disability is, its definition, how it connects to health or wellbeing. And so a first model or family of views about disability is called the medical model. The medical model says that the referent of the term disability is something in an individual human body. And there's something that is not working or operating according to an expected function. So if I don't have use of my legs, you might say the disability is in my body, I can't use my legs for walking or for movement. The medical model in a lot of ways got developed out of World War I. And so when you have veterans coming back from the war, instead of dying, medicine saved their life, but they came back without legs or a leg or a use of arm or without use of both of their eyes. And so governments thought 'we have an obligation to help our wounded veterans' and so we need to invest in their care, come up with better wheelchairs, come up with different ways for these veterans to get something approximate to their previous use of functioning. And so the way that thinking about disability came in was it became a term to refer to lots of different kinds of conditions. So it can involve mobility, it can involve sensory modalities, seeing, hearing, tasting, it can involve all kinds of cognitive functions or lack of functions or intellectual ones. It became a word that referred to a bunch of different conditions. So we had the medical model and then later what happens with more of the disability rights movement was a social model, which wanted to say that the disability is the conjunction of society and things that have been designed in society in connection to my body. So for example, if a person doesn't have the use of their legs and they're a wheelchair user, but then they need to get access to a building to vote or go to school, but getting access to building requires going upstairs, then the thought is the social structure impedes me from doing something that I want to do and ought to do. And so it's society that disables me. The disability is a social reality. It's not just located in my body, like the medical model might say. And so this kind of way of thinking about disability fit really well with the disability rights movement because it's a way to advocate for structural changes in society. So in like the United States in 1991 with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is about legal rights, access to buildings and places and spaces. And so there the thought is you have to change things in society. You don't have to change the individual for the goodness to happen. And then since then we've had hybrid models between a medical or a social model because a problem with a social model is that it might locate all of the pain and frustration in social contexts and ignore personal pains or frustrations within a person's own experience of their own body, which might be independent of anybody else. And so we've had new kinds of models to try to integrate in both sides of thinking about disability. One of the issues about theorizing about disability is whether or not there's a good definition for all of them. So one of the big debates, in contemporary philosophy of disability, is 'what is the meaning of the term disability?' So we have definitional debates and there's a list of proposed definitions because it's supposed to cover all kinds of cases of disability. And so some philosophers have kind of given up on that task and said, well, it's kind of like a hodgepodge word. It can refer to a lot of conditions that don't have overlap between them. Another kind of debate about disability today is how it relates to health. What is health? Because health is kind of a normative idea, but it's also descriptive. And then another connection is how does disability connect to well-being, both like a subjective sense of well-being, and then if you have an objective theory of well-being, how does disability connect with that? And so some people might try to give an answer that says, here's the definition of disability, and it always, say, lowers health or always lowers well-being. Another kind of position might say, no, no, it's neutral. It doesn't make a difference to health or well-being. That depends on other factors in an individual's life. And then other people say, well, life is messy. And that really depends on the individual and their own social context. Two people with the same diagnosis could experience their disability in different ways. And so for one person, they might feel like the disability is a disadvantage to them because of maybe ongoing pain. Another person with the same diagnosis may not have that kind of experience. And so where we are in the debate today is trying to pay closer attention to a lot of counter examples. There's a lot of hesitation about coming up with general definitions that are supposed to apply to all cases, though that's something that analytic philosophers would love to get at, right, the general definition.

Peter Adamson: Okay. That was quite a magisterial overview of a whole field of philosophy. One thing I'm struck by is that you were really focusing throughout there on the question of what disability is or what it means, and maybe even whether it is one thing. Are there also questions that come up about how to treat disabled people, either at the political level or the ethical level?

Scott Williams: Oh, yes, absolutely. Here's a historical example. When COVID-19 began, there was a state in the United States, when they were deciding who gets vaccines first, one of the groups not included on it was a vulnerable group of certain people with certain disability conditions, right? And so then the thought is their lives, according to the state, don't matter as much as other lives. And so then you had colleagues who work in the faculty of disability who are advocating for their access to say, vaccinations in that context. So there's definitely concerns about political rights, access, technologies, better wheelchairs, or better access to medications or better medications. Or there's also discussion like informal context. If you're a person who's able-bodied and you see somebody in a wheelchair who's trying to open a door, you might be tempted to try to help them open the door. You might just walk over there and intervene and say, here you go, let me open this for you. And then the person in the wheelchair might be very offended by this, right? They might thank you or they might be offended by this. And so some philosophers like Adam Curtin, he's sort of advocated about don't intervene unless you're asked to. Suggestion. Because it takes somebody longer to do something doesn't mean it ought to take shorter, right? People have different speeds at which they do activities. And so you have to be super cautious about imposing your own expectations on other people. So those are some areas of philosophy, disability, sort of everyday life, political rights. There's of course, bioethics is a major area. And that's where a lot of the debates are going on today.

Peter Adamson: Okay, well, we could clearly spend a whole interview talking about that. This is a history of philosophy podcast. So let's turn our attention to history of philosophy. We're mostly going to be talking now about how philosophy about people who are disabled or supposedly disabled looks in pre-modern or early modern times. Before we get on to that, though, I wanted to ask you whether there's also an interesting issue to be confronted about philosophers who were affected by something that we might think of as a disability. So I was thinking about this beforehand. And a couple of examples came to mind from late antiquity, although we could probably think of more. One is Plotinus, whose student and editor Porphyry says that his eyesight was so bad that he wasn't able to proofread his own writing. And of course, he lived before the invention of eyeglasses. Another example about how context affects whether or not you're disabled, right? What technologies are available? And then another example I thought of was Epictetus, who we're told had a disabled leg. Are these factors that we should be considering when reading their work? Maybe it's obvious that we should consider them, but it's not so obvious how. How do you think we feed in disabilities into reading the authors?

Scott Williams: It's a great question. I think it's just as important as any other biographical information about a historical author would be. You list language, maybe religion, other kinds of facts about the person. If some kind of condition is a part of their social identity, then we could include that. But we have to be very careful and curious about whether or not their condition informed their philosophy. So we can be curious, I did it, I need to wait and see. You have to be careful about reading into it, just because a person has a physical disability or some other kind of disability that doesn't guarantee that they're going to have a specific take on it, because people with similar conditions may disagree with each other about it, depending on personality, their own belief systems, their own values, their own social network that they have, so I think it's important to include it, like biographical information. But if there's, I think, something you discover by being attentive to their text, maybe if they say something or forward an argument for something that seems like it's informed by some evidence that they have, and they have that evidence because of their own disability, then that would be really important to pay attention to. But I think it's kind of like a look and see attitude would probably be best rather than imposing on them whatever political agenda we may have today or otherwise, because we want them to, as much as possible, speak for themselves.

Peter Adamson: And of course, in other cases where authors belong to groups that seem salient to us, so for example, something I think about also is women authors, it seems obvious that you would think about the fact that, say, a pre-modern philosopher was a woman, like how could it not be hugely relevant for her living in pre-modern society? But maybe she doesn't think that's the most important thing about her as an author, so a medieval mystic might think the most important thing about me is that God talks to me, not that I'm a woman.

Scott Williams: Yeah, I think the look and see, let the authors direct. I mean, we can use hermeneutics of suspicion, but we also need to be mindful of imposing onto texts our own interests.

Peter Adamson: The example I gave just now, actually, Plotinus, I mean, I don't think Porphyry says this explicitly in his biography of Plotinus, but I always took it that what Porphyry meant was that Plotinus's bad eyesight was kind of an advantage rather than being a disability, because it helped to get away from the body. You can sort of see Plotinus thinking that, right? It's good that I don't have these kind of bodily distractions the way other people who have sharper vision.

Scott Williams: Oh, that's great. I didn't know about that. There are a lot of examples of contemporary philosophy disability about this kind of thing. They call it disability gain. You get access to new kinds of experiences or new information because of the disability. I mean, and then there are doctors looking at this, like if you lose eyesight, does that augment hearing? Does it augment other kinds of powers? Because you depend on the more for getting around. There was one phrase that I think it's helpful. I learned it from Ryan Mullins a bit ago about the concern about using general theories to apply to individuals, which is the label of identity hijacking, right? If you have a person with a certain disability, it's blindness, you listen to their testimony about their own experience, that should teach you about what their experience is and maybe give you some probabilistic evidence about other blind individuals. But you don't want to do the hasty generalization and say like they get to own that social identity. So that's something that you have to be super cautious of because sometimes people for political reasons and advocacy reasons want to represent people with their condition to get more rights. And that makes sense in the attempt for getting access to funding for supporting disabilities, but for larger kinds of issues, right? There's more debate, more disagreement probably.

Peter Adamson: Okay. Well, before we jump ahead from Plotinus to the 15th and 16th centuries, let's pause for a moment on the medieval period. And the reason I want to pause there is that this is something you've worked on and thought about quite a lot. Some of your work that's trying to bring the philosophy of disability to bear on history of philosophy looks at medieval philosophy and in particular, the problem of personhood. Can you explain why that's relevant? First of all, maybe to medieval philosophy, then how it kind of has a dimension that connects with philosophy of disability?

Scott Williams: In contemporary ethics, you are introduced to the category distinction between persons and things oftentimes. And you say persons have intrinsic value, things only have instrumental value relative to persons. And so thinking about personhood and what a person is does a lot of work for some theorizing today in ethical theory. And so if you assume a certain definition of what a person is, then that's going to shape moral judgments you might make. So if you think a person is something like a being that is self-conscious, that is able to communicate to other self-conscious beings, that can deliberate and have long-term plans, and other kinds of higher cognitive achievements, then you will assume that human beings that never engage in those kinds of activities would not be a person. And if you think personhood is what gives you moral status and equality, then you would be implying that there are human beings that aren't persons and so wouldn't have moral equality with other human beings. And this is precisely a kind of position that some philosophers today advocate for, for a graded ethical theory that some human beings matter morally more than others, depending on their cognitive achievements and long-term planning and things like that. And so my work thinking about the history of personhood is to try to undermine and bring further historical context to the classification of what a person is, because most people engaged in contemporary ethical theory are unfamiliar with the Christian roots of the category or the classification of what a person is. In Christian theology, it's believed that there's one God who is three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, and in the incarnation that there's one person, Jesus of Nazareth, who is human and divine. And so in the ancient Greek, Christian theology in Latin and Syriac and other linguistic groups, there's a lot of debate about what a person is and how it connects to nature, person and nature, and I distinguish those two. And so in my work, what I've tried to show is that there is a long list of competing definitions of what a person is and that in many of those definitions of a person, rationality is not included in them. And so I've grouped these together like Byzantine theories of personhood. So rationality is not a part of those definitions of person, but it's with Boethius that we get introduced into the tradition. He introduces rationality into his definition of personhood, even though all of his Christian forebears didn't. And so it's an interesting question, why did he think he needed to add rationality into the definition of a person? And so the Byzantine account of personhood, which is like an individual of a nature versus the Boethian account of personhood, which is an individual of a rational nature, both of those accounts would, if we thought that that was the basis for moral status, then every human being would have equal moral status because we would all be either individuals of human nature or individuals of a rational nature. Whereas modern notions of personhood add on these cognitive activities of self-knowledge, deliberation, and things like that. And so there's another historical influence on thinking about personhood, and that's with translations. If you look at a lot of translations of Thomas Aquinas' writings, sometimes you will see the word "person" used, but the word person is not there in the Latin. It's either human or just one or a subject, but oftentimes English translators will use the word person because of the contemporary use of the word person, which is something like a synonym for individual human. But I think what this does for the history of philosophy is it makes readers think that personhood is more in the ethical discussions when it is not. And so being attentive to the translation movements, translation decisions, will help us to have greater sensitivity to personhood. And one of the things that knowing about the history of personhood helps us to do is to not say things like, it's obvious what a person is to me, right? It's more like if it's obvious to you, it's because you're influenced by who you read in your social and linguistic environment and how the words are being used in that context. And so once you're aware of the history, then that can help empower you to be better evaluating what work you think personhood should do for ethical theorizing.

Peter Adamson: That's great. This is the kind of application for history of philosophy that I'm very much in favor of. It's giving us perspective on allowing us to take a step back away from, as it were, our own concepts so that if we have someone saying, well, this person's severely cognitive impaired, so actually they're not a person at all, you can say, well, hang on a second, what assumptions are you making about person and what are you building into that concept that you might think is obvious, but actually isn't obvious at all, because that's not how the word person used to be used. And so it's sort of up for grabs whether it should be part of the definition of the concept. 
Okay, that's great. So finally, let's move on to the main event of this conversation, which is the encounter between the Europeans and the Americas. There's a kind of obvious way where thinking about this in the context of philosophy of disability might arise, which is that it looks like Europeans, especially people who are in favor of, if not enslaving, then at least treating the Amerindians very badly, like Sepulveda, for example, it seems like they were thinking of all of the Amerindians as being effectively disabled, right? So not able to reason correctly, maybe also being physically rather unprepossessing, something they also sometimes say. Sometimes they also talk about groups of Amerindians as being some kind of monster, like supposed giants of Patagonia, who I mentioned in another episode. Is that the basic reason why it's relevant to connect philosophy of disability to this historical encounter?

Scott Williams: We have to trace it back to Aristotle's discussion of natural slavery and historical misinterpretations of Aristotle's discussion of it. Many people today, if they are familiar with Aristotle, or at least what is said about him, they should reread the text to see if what they think is there is actually there. The scholars who are working closely on Aristotle's discussion on natural slavery versus civil slavery have tried to show that Aristotle's discussion is a lot more nuanced than what readers might otherwise think. And that nuance helps us to see what kind of connection there is historically to theorizing about human beings with profound cognitive disabilities and how that was used in theorizing about the idea of racial hierarchy. And so the connection that I'm thinking about here with disability and these Spanish debates has to do with debates about what Aristotle meant by a natural slave. And so the readings that I've seen, the commentaries, people read Aristotle closely, think that he was trying to talk about individuals in a household with congenital, just from birth, doesn't matter what environment they're in, they do not engage in their own deliberations. They can sort of follow direction from head of household. They can use their bodies. But Aristotle was talking about a group of people in a household and he was trying to theorize about them. Now what he says about them, we would strongly disagree with in some parts of what he says, like he thinks that the natural slave in the household is the instrument of the householder. So this is the completely opposite of today, what we think in terms of we should have care for the individual for their own sake, rather than for the instrumental use of the caregiver. If it's okay, I'm going to read a passage for you from John Mayer that illustrates the problematic reading of Aristotle. And then I'm going to read Miguel Romero's commentary on this passage. It's really important, I think, to be attentive to the exegetical moves that John Mayor makes and the mistakes that he makes. The mistakes that he makes is what we might call the creation of one of the worst concepts ever invented, which is a conflation of the practices of civil slavery with theorizing about natural slavery and becomes one category. And it becomes the basis or the root of at least in the part of history I'm thinking about, because the root of the idea of racial hierarchy, but it's all rooted in a text that was about individuals with profound cognitive disabilities. So I'll read this passage.

Peter Adamson: And maybe I should just remind listeners John Mayor or John Major, as he's sometimes called, is a Scottish scholastic who was in Paris and was one of the figures I actually mentioned as being in favor of the way the Spanish were treating the Amerindians on the basis that they were natural slaves. So here's the justification for it.

Scott Williams: Yeah. So first here's Miguel Romero, and then he'll quote the passage. So Miguel Romero says, in John Major's commentary on distinction 44 in book two of the Sentences, he takes up the question of whether or not it is legitimate for Christians to rule over Pagans. In his response, Mayer includes a remark that was recognized by the colonialist interest of the burgos junta as a way to solve the philosophical questions and juridical challenges being raised by the Dominican order. Mayor writes, quote, "these people found in the Atlantic Ocean live in a bestial manner near either side of the equator and below the poles live human beings who live as wild animals, as Ptolemy says in his Tetrabiblos. And this has now been verified by experience. Wherefore, the first person to conquer them justly rules over them because these people are slaves by nature, as is evident, as Aristotle says in the third and fourth chapters of the politics, it is manifest that some are by nature slaves, others by nature free. And it is determined that in some individuals there exists that kind of disposition so that this state of affairs is beneficial to them. And it is just for the one person to be a slave and for the other to be free. And it is fitting that the one person rules while the other in accordance with his innate disposition belongs to this master and thereby he is ruled. For this reason, the philosopher in the first chapter of the same book says that it is on this account that the poets say that it is proper for Greeks to rule over barbarians because by nature a barbarian and a slave are the same thing." So that's the end of Mayor's quote. Now here's Romero commenting on this. "I've included the whole of the relevant section from Mayor's commentary. There are four important interpretive claims in Mayor's gloss of book one of the politics. First, the identification of an entire foreign people group. As already noted, this passage is the earliest extent example of the claim that the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas are in mass a paradigm instance of Aristotle's slave by nature. Second, the cause of the condition of the slave by nature. Mayor inflates Aristotle's account of the slave by nature with Ptolemy's astrological account of region-based racial difference. Third, the distinctiveness of the slave by nature. Mayor inflates Aristotle's account of the slave by nature figure with Aristotle's discrete accounts of non-Greeks, of bestial men, and persons subjugated through war. Fourth, the life of the slave by nature within the household. Mayor claims that the authority of the natural master over the natural slave is secured and enforced through the violence of war." Now what Romero goes on to do is to show that each of these four points are four fundamental misinterpretations of Aristotle's text. That's a matter of exegesis, but what Mayor is doing in this paragraph that we read is taking what Aristotle said about civil slaves, and civil slaves the practice was you can be subjugated through warfare. Instead of being killed, we can have you slaves. This became a part of Roman law, for example. Then he contrasts this with individuals who are in the household who don't literally deliberate on their own. We need direction from the head of household. What Mayor does is he puts these two groups together. It's an incoherent idea. It's a climate-based account of natural slavery such that all people in a certain climate become natural slaves. But Aristotle had said that a natural slave is something that is a part of the natural order and it's individual. It's not a population based thing. Maybe an individual in a household. But Aristotle's discussion of climate-based racial differences. If you live in a place that's too hot or too cold, this is going to have effects on your body, which will then have effects on emotions and intellectual activity and those kinds of things. So Aristotle distinguishes these three different, you say, explananda, but what Mayor does is he just lumps them all together. It's also important to point out that in Mayor's discussion, there is no mention of skin color. It's just people described as behaving these kinds of ways. So the idea of any kind of colorism or preference for different skin colors, this theory that Mayor advocates or describes, you can use it to apply to anybody or you could try to use it to apply to anybody. I found that there is a similar exegetical mistake at the very end of Avicenna's text on the metaphysics where he talks about whether an imam, he needing laborers. And so he said that the imam can go conquer the Turks and the dark-skinned people in Africa because Avicenna says these are slaves by nature and we can just get them through warfare to work in the virtuous city. But Avicenna was not getting in all the textual details of Aristotle. So he also makes this kind of conflation. And so the idea of disability in this context is you had a historical text theorizing about human beings with cognitive disabilities and then what happens with people like John Mayor and Sepulveda is they're just completely unfamiliar with that thinking about one part of the human family is involving people with cognitive disabilities and thinking that it's just about a whole population group. And so it's just bad reading, tempts them and leads them to thinking in this kind of way.

Peter Adamson: And actually going back to something that we were talking about towards the beginning of this conversation, if you think that disabilities are to some extent defined by the social context, it's also kind of a contradictory idea that you would have an entire society made up of disabled people, right? Because they'd all be the same. Right. And so they wouldn't, if in that context they wouldn't count as disabled, right? Right. Yeah. So it would be ridiculous for the Spanish to come and say, Oh, I mean, even if it had been true that all the Amerindians were somehow mentally inferior to them or something, of course it wasn't true, but even been true thinking of them as disabled people or effectively disabled people who therefore needed some kind of oversight from supposedly superior people would have ignored the fact that their societies were functioning just fine. And that whatever capacities these people had were in fact making them abled and not disabled within the context in which they were living, which is maybe more like what someone like De Las Casas was saying. But so he wasn't saying, well, they're just as good as us or that their lives are just as good as us. He was saying that their lives were fine. Right? With the disability in this context.

Scott Williams: Another way, again, I think about the disability in this context is are the people having these conversations and say in Spain, are they aware and acknowledging the existence of the variety of human life, the variety of human cognitive abilities in their own culture, or do they acknowledge the existence of such people? And if they do acknowledge the existence of such people, then if they're Christians, then they would think that they have pastoral cares and to be good neighbors to these people, they should care for their wellbeing to the extent that it's appropriate to do so. But in Mayor's case, right, by throwing in civil slavery of subjugation through warfare, he has this idea that if somebody's a natural slave, it's the right thing to do is conquer them through warfare. But that's not at all part of Aristotle's discussion of natural slavery, like conquering people through warfare is not a feature of natural slavery discussion in Aristotle. And in some ways, this discussion of an amalgam concept of civil slavery, natural slavery, it helps to explain why like Las Casas can think it doesn't apply to the Amerindians because he knew them directly. But then later in his life, he said, you know, we can make up the labor shortfall by getting people from the African continent. Again, in the Mayor's idea, skin color isn't a feature of it, right? It might be a sign for somebody who is what we call racist, but it's not the core idea. It's just the difference of body and skin color can just be ad hoc justification, right for applying this category to somebody.

Peter Adamson: Although De Las Casas when he says that he doesn't say it's because they're black, he just says it's because black Africans or Negroes or whatever he would have called them are supposedly physically more powerful than the Amerindians who he pictures as these kind of innocent, gentle creatures who wouldn't hurt a fly, right? And so he sort of says, well, if you want to get some backbreaking work done, then you're better off enslaving Africans. I mean, he's clearly making that move because he's trying to get them to leave the Amerindians alone. He's just trying to redirect their enslaving activities, right?

Scott Williams: I've not read Las Casas on this, but I think that if warfare is involved in getting laborers, right, then you're using this idea from Mayor, right? You're somehow justified to conquer people through warfare, because you're claiming that they're natural slaves.

Peter Adamson: Yeah. I think he's been led into saying something coherent and appalling there through the sort of force of the need to make a rhetorical point against his opponents. Not one of his better moments to put it mildly. Is there also a way in which one could accuse De Las Casas of somehow depicting the Amerindians as being effectively disabled? Because when he describes them as being these lamb-like, gentle, simple creatures, he's effectively saying, well, they're like children. So, I mean, in a way it's almost like he and Sepulveda agree that they're like children. And De Las Casas is making the good point that you don't declare war on children and enslave them. You care for them and you give them religious instruction, right? Which is what he wanted done. He does also say that the Amerindians are capable of pretty impressive feats, but there are some moments where it sounds like he's saying, well, they occupy some kind of lesser status than we superior Europeans do. So maybe we can't entirely absolve him of this move either.

Scott Williams: Oh yeah. But I think the question about if you're describing De Las Casas describing them as children, then I think he's leaving the train of disability is not then a feature of this background. Then it's another context.

Peter Adamson: Well, I was thinking like an adult human who's effectively like a child in certain ways might count as disabled.

Scott Williams: Oh, I see. It's a difficult thing because you have a cultural difference, linguistic difference, cultural expectations for like what activities count as a typical human activity in terms of like, how do you grow your food? What food do you eat? What clothes do you wear? How many clothes, you know, all these kinds of cultural differences. And so if Las Casas refers to those individuals as childlike, right, we have to pay attention to what are the cultural differences because he's trying to make up language to describe what he's experiencing, given his own cultural backgrounds. So I think that that kind of language reflects more on his intellectual backgrounds, less on the individuals he's describing.

Peter Adamson: I wasn't in any way assuming that what he was saying about them was accurate. I was just trying to understand the inner logic of this supposed defense of the Amerindians and whether or in common with the justifications for attacking the Amerindians, then one might at first think.

Scott Williams: Something that Las Casas takes from John Mayor that Francisco de Vittoria is different about. So Las Casas says in defense of the American Indians, at the beginning of it, he gives four different definitions of what a barbarian is. The third definition is if you read it closely, it looks a lot like what John Mayor was describing in his text. It seems like what Las Casas is doing is agreeing that there is such a classification, but just denies that it applies to the Amerindians. What de Vittoria does when he's addressing this is he just denies the classification as such, right? That's not a real classification. There is nobody in that classification that Mayor is talking about. So they both have similar political goals, but what de Vittoria is doing is being a closer reader of, in this context, Aquinas's commentary on the politics of Aristotle. De Vittoria is also more attentive to this discussion about use of reason and then how that connects to natural rights. In his lecture on the American indians, he talks about the theoretical case of human beings who are without the use of reason, and that's how Aristotle describes the natural slave, the person without the use of reason as the person is not able to deliberate for themselves about how to achieve their own goals. And so de Vittoria says that even a human being in that condition, even if it's permanent, still has ownership of their own body and their own property. They still own things. They still have their natural rights, and so it would be unjust to enslave them through warfare. And that's a very interesting claim on his part because other theologians like Sepulveda may have thought you have to have use of reason to earn or get rights, but de Vittoria denies that, at least in terms like these basic rights that he's describing. And that's a pretty bold kind of claim by de Vittoria in this social context that he's writing in. And I think it's partly because he pays close attention to the metaphysics of human beings, right, in Aristotle, and he's distinguishing powers and different kinds of mental acts. There's a lecture that he gave, I think it was before the lecture on the American indians, that's not been translated into English yet, but I'm working on the translation of this. And the lecture is called How Human Beings Come to the Use of Reason. And he spends time thinking about different kinds of cases about different kinds of impediments for human beings in different conditions to engage in deliberation and things like that. So in his case, it was like talking about young children or people who are asleep or this group called the human beings, the "amens," or the "amentia," those who are without the use of reason, typically in a permanent condition rather than a temporary one. So he talks about all these different groups and he's thinking about how personal moral accountability fits into this discussion about use of reason. So I think that because he's paying close attention to different human situations, when he's theorizing about a supposed whole group of human beings who are called natural slaves, he has resources to be very careful in what he says about that, unlike people like John Mayor and Las Casas, at least within this context.

Peter Adamson: Okay, great. Well, there's one last thing I wanted to ask you, which is now stepping back to the big picture again. We've talked a bit about applying insights from philosophy of disability to historical texts and figures. And maybe we've also been suggesting ways that history of philosophy could inform philosophy of disability. And that's really what I wanted to ask you is which way do you think that the insight flows here? Is your idea in combining these two things that you want to feed some historical examples into the philosophy of disability and enrich that debate? Or is it more like you want to take some conceptual tools from the philosophy of disability in order to do better work in history of philosophy? Or maybe it's both.

Scott Williams: For me, it should be both, or at least people should be engaged in those activities. So for example, I think we will be better historians of philosophy if we attend to these less familiar kinds of cases and debates. And there's some slight but growing literature about the philosophy of mind, about medieval discussions of cognitive disabilities, what their causes are, what their significance for ethics are, and things like that. I think it enriches contemporary philosophical reflection on disability, because one example, of course, is the discussion of personhood earlier, the past can also provide resources of moves that we forgot, so to speak, and we can remember them, which might be helpful for improving current discourse. But I think in general, we should have kind of like this dynamic equilibrium where if you're, you know, a graduate student in philosophy, you've got to learn some logic and maybe some metaphysics and some epistemology. If you add on their discussion about the philosophy of disability, and then you go read historical text, you're more attuned to what may be going on in the text, I think, always being cautious for it not to read the past back into the present, or the present back into the past. So I think this can enrich our understanding of the historical text and deepen our contemporary discussions. There's one kind of parallel that's occurred to me. So in contemporary philosophy of disability, there's this big debate between, say, Peter Singer and Ava Feder Kittay. Ava Kittay is a strong advocate for disability and the equal moral status of profoundly cognitive disabled human beings. And when Peter Singer challenges her, he says, well, you need to have these higher cognitive functions to get moral equality. And so what Kittay does in response oftentimes is then point out specific activities. She speaks often about her daughter who has some significant disabilities. She points out things that her daughter does. She likes music. She responds in this way or that way. I mean, that's an appropriate response. But I think if you are familiar with this debate between, say, de Vittoria and Les Casas with their different strategies, de Vittoria, he would probably say to Peter Singer, I don't need to point out achievements to earn moral status. But Kittay seems to be thinking she needs to point out achievements to get moral status or moral equality. Whereas Las Casas seems to agree about achievements. And he's pointing out, here are all the things that Amerindians are doing. They've got families. They've got social structures. They've got all of their cultural practices - that's to try to support the rights of the Amerindians. So I think knowing differences in the history of philosophy can help us see more moves we can make in contemporary discussion.

Peter Adamson: Well, in light of that, it's certainly overdue that we find things spend some time thinking about this here on the podcast, better late than never, I guess. And in the future, as we continue going through this philosophy, we can keep more of an eye out for this kind of issue. In fact, I think this discussion has already made me realize there's a point I can make in the very next episode about a case where an author is writing about a disabled persons. We'll see that next time. That's going to be in the context of talking about humanism in Spain and Portugal, but especially Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries. 


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.