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by Elizabeth Barnes
Oxford University Press, 2016
Review by Tessa-May Zirnsak on May 14th 2019

The Minority Body

Philosophy and disability studies have long been thought of as having irreconcilable approaches to disability. This in part can be attributed to the philosophical tradition that excludes disabled people and renders them subjects of philosophical enquiry, without support from disabled testimony. Elizabeth Barnes has challenged this norm in this latest book, by using the same analytical tools too often used to delegitimize disabled voices ways of being to build a compelling case for why we should view disability as (at least) value neutral. Barnes argues that people with disability don't have tragic bodies, but rather have minority bodies; bodies that are just different to the norm. Barnes' text is 200 pages long, and published by Oxford University Press. Barnes uses an informal tone, her text reading more like a transcription from a lecture than as a philosophical text. For this reason, her writing is particularly easy to engage with and enjoyable to read. Footnotes are used appropriately to support the authors arguments, offer counterargument, and perform explanations that may not be strictly relevant to the argument being made in text. This review will first outline the chapters in this text and the central argument of each, and then discuss the contribution of this text to the current academic state of play in philosophy of disability. This review will finally arrive at the conclusion that this book is well written and a significant contribution to philosophy of disability. Anyone either in the field or just starting out in the study of philosophy would benefit greatly from engaging with Barnes' work.

Barnes' text is effectively organized, with each chapter dealing with one specific part of Barnes central argument. In the preface, Barnes identifies herself as someone with a disability and subsequently reveals herself to us as having a stake in philosophy of disability. For Barnes, this is a strength and not a weakness. Barnes further outlines for us the experience of studying disability as a minority finding yourself poorly represented among philosophers, and wrongly caricatured in the philosophical work based on communities to which you pertain. This introduces the reader nicely to this text, preparing us for a different kind of analytic philosophy-a kind where lived experience is viewed as a kind of expertise. The first four Chapters of this text articulate a value-neutral model of disability. That is, a model that views disabled bodies not as tragic bodies, but rather as minority bodies. Bodies that are in some sense imbued with politics surrounding social minority. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with counterarguments (although Barnes does address many of these throughout her text as a whole) and outline some of the key issues with disability discourse which have impacted the disability pride movement. The pride movement, Barnes argues, is the most effective thing we have to purport the idea that disabled bodies are minority bodies. Overall, Barnes has done incredibly well at using the analytical tools employed by analytic philosophy to attempt to demonstrate disability as a bad thing to argue that disability is value-neutral. This is what the text should be commended for. However, I wonder what Barnes would produce if writing on disability without the use of these tools. Disabled people are producing accounts for why disability is not a bad thing, but I am yet to encounter one that does this through analytic philosophy. I'm interested in what Barnes may be able to produce in that arena.

I would now like to examine Barnes' contribution to philosophy (as opposed to disability studies) in greater detail. Barnes carefully excludes groups that would challenge the model that Barnes is articulating. For example, she makes it very clear that in her text, when she talks about 'disability' she specifically means physical disability. Barnes further invites others to potentially continue her work as it applies to people with non-physical disability. Even though Barnes is working on a different kind of disability to Eva Kittay (who mostly works on cognitive and intellectual disability), her work comes of the back of philosophy by Kittay, in the sense that it comes from a place of lived expertise to inform philosophy. Following in Kittay's philosophy, Barnes' book seems to both seek to prove and come from the assumption that disabled lives are worth living. This is a contradiction, but it's mitigated by Barnes' decision early in the book to identify herself as a disabled person – clearly she thinks her life is worth living. Overall this is a strength of her text as it represents a significant contribution to the philosophy literature on disability, which often seeks to be 'objective', and fails to consult with disabled people. Barnes' text is a welcome departure from the principle of objectivity in analytic philosophy, especially given that this objectivity is often mistaken for removing people with stake in the conversation from the conversation altogether. Barnes is already acutely aware at the beginning of her book that disability is not a bad thing. She knows because, as she tells us, she is disabled. She attacks the problem of disabled personhood in philosophy from a place of knowing things that non-disabled philosophers can never know, using her own lived experience to situate herself as an expert and invested party in this problem. Not only this, Barnes has also been able to situate herself as an expert in analytic philosophy and an expert of philosophy of disability in this text. Barnes does this well, however it would be interesting to see how this work could be developed to give legitimacy to the existing voices within disability philosophy that aren't using analytic tools. Barnes partially starts this work in her Chapter 4, but more could be done in this area across a variety of publication platforms. 

In this review, I have summarized Barnes' text in my own words against the goals she has set for herself. I have then examined in greater detail Barnes' used of the tools of analytic philosophy to make an argument about disability. I am happy to unequivocally say that this text makes a fascinating and groundbreaking contribution to feminist and disability philosophy. I would enthusiastically recommend this text to anyone interested in disability and philosophy, and especially to those new to philosophy.


©2019 Tessa-May Zirnsak


Tessa-May Zirnsak, La Trobe University, Australia