Merleau-Ponty, World-Creating Blindness, and the Phenomenology of Non-Normate Bodies

Chiasmi International: Trilingual Studies Concerning Merleau-Ponty's Thought 19:419-434 (2017)
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An increasing number of scholars at the intersection of feminist philosophy and critical disability studies have turned to Merleau-Ponty to develop phenomenologies of disability or of what, following Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, I call "non-normate" embodiment. These studies buck the historical trend of philosophers employing disability as an example of deficiency or harm, a mere litmus test for normative theories, or an umbrella term for aphenotypical bodily variation. While a Merleau-Pontian-inspired phenomenology is a promising starting point for thinking about embodied experiences of all sorts, I here draw a cautionary tale about how ableist assumptions can easily undermine accounts of non-normate experience. I first argue that the omission or misguided treatment of disability within the history of philosophy in general and the phenomenological tradition in particular is due to the inheritance of what I call “the ableist conflation” of disability with pain, suffering, and disadvantage. I then show that Merleau-Ponty’s famous reading of the blind man’s cane is problematic insofar as it omits the social dimensions of disabled experiences, misconstrues the radicality of blindness as a world-creating disability, and operates via an able-bodied simulation that confuses object annexation or extension with incorporation. In closing, I contend that if phenomenology is to overcome the errors of traditional philosophy, as Merleau-Ponty once hoped, it must heed the insights of “crip” or non-normate phenomenology, which takes the lived experience of disability as its point of departure. [French translation forthcoming in Pour une phénoménologie critique, ed. Donald A. Landes, Quebec City, Les Presses de l'Université Laval/Paris, J.Vrin]

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Joel Michael Reynolds
Georgetown University


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