Social Metaphysics: Race, Gender, and Disability

July 10, 2018 - July 12, 2018
Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham

Arts Centee Lecture Theatre
University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD
United Kingdom

This will be an accessible event, including organized related activities

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All speakers:

University of Virginia
University of Notre Dame
Stockholm University
University of St. Andrews
Yale University
Tufts University
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Nottingham University
University of Vienna
Oxford University
Oxford University
Rutgers University - New Brunswick
University of Pennsylvania
Nottingham University


Nottingham University
Nottingham University

Topic areas

Talks at this conference

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How should we understand the reality of social phenomena such as Race, Gender, and Disability? Are they grounded in objective features of the world, such as biological or economic facts? or by our communal beliefs and intentions? How, in general, should we understand the metaphysics of ‘social construction’, and what kind of reality do socially constructed entities enjoy? And what does all of this entail for efforts to combat injustice based on these categories? Can the construction of these categories be reversed – and should it be?


Elizabeth Barnes (University of Virginia), title TBC

Sally Haslanger (MIT), title TBC

Mari Mikkola (Oxford University), 'Derivative, descriptive and feminist metaphysics'

Abstract: Over the past few years, feminist philosophers have debated whether feminist metaphysical debates over (e.g.) gender and sexuality are metaphysically shallow (and hence merely conventional) or metaphysically deep (and hence substantive). In the former case, feminist debates fall outside of metaphysics 'proper' on some influential contemporary views, as argued for by Elizabeth Barnes. In this case, feminist metaphysical questions would simply part of social philosophy. Elsewhere I have argued that the antagonism between feminist and "mainstream" metaphysics is merely apparent. The talk continues on this theme, and considers the compatibility of feminist and mainstream metaphysics from a different angle. I will examine Frank Jackson's "serious metaphysics" and Peter Strawson's "descriptive metaphysics" with respect to questions about the nature of gender. This examination tells us two things. First, and perhaps frustratingly, on prevalent conceptions of metaphysics,feminist metaphysics both does and does not qualify depending on how we understand the ideology (in Quine's sense) of these conceptions. Second, and relatedly, I hold that this gives us strong reasons to abandon the substantive/ conventional distinction, whereby the choice of conceptual schemes employed ends up being 'merely' conventional and metaphysically shallow.

Jonathan Schaffer (Rutgers), 'War Crimes, Dollars, and Women: Adventures in Social Construction'

Quayshawn Spencer (University of Pennsylvania), 'A Racial Classification for Medical Genetics'

Abstract: In the early 2000s, Esteban Burchard and his colleagues defended a controversial route to the view that there's a racial classification of people that's (epistemically) useful in medicine.  The route, which I call 'Burchard's route,' is arguing that there's a racial classification of people that's useful in medicine because, roughly, there's a racial classification with medically relevant genetic differentiation (Risch et al. 2002; Burchard et al. 2003).  While almost all scholars engaged in this debate agree that there's a racial classification of people that's useful in medicine in some way, there's tremendous controversy over whether any racial scheme is useful in medicine because there are medically relevant genetic differences among those races (Yudell et al. 2016, 565).  The goal of this paper will be to show that Burchard's route is basically correct.  However, I will use a slightly different argument than Burchard et al.'s in order to provide a firmer foundation for the thesis, both metaphysically and genetically.  I begin by reviewing Burchard's route and its critics.  Second, I present an original argument for establishing Burchard et al.'s conclusion using a Burchard-like route.  I call it 'Spencer's route.'  I reply to major objections along the way, and I end with a summary.

Brian Epstein (Tufts University), 'Anchoring as a Philosophical Tool'

Åsa Burman (Stockholm), 'Telic Power'

Sara Bernstein (Notre Dame), 'The Metaphysics of Intersectionality'

Abstract: This paper develops and articulates a metaphysics of intersectionality, the idea that multiple axes of oppression cross-cut each other. Though intersectionality is often described through metaphor, I suggest that rigorous theories of intersectionality can be formulated using the tools of contemporary analytic metaphysics. A central tenet of intersectionality theory, that intersectional identities are inseparable, can be framed in terms of explanatory unity. Inseparability should not be understood as modal inseparability or conceptual inseparability, I argue. Further, intersectionality is best understood as metaphysical and explanatory priority of the intersectional category over its constituents, comparable to metaphysical priority of the whole over its parts.

Katharine Jenkins and Aness Webster (Nottingham), 'Disability, Impairment, and Marginalised Functioning'

Abstract: Some accounts of the metaphysics of disability introduce a distinct category of impairment. It is widely assumed that in order for this move to be worth making, impairment must be conceived of as a natural, non-social kind. The purpose of invoking impairment so conceived is to anchor an account of disability in natural bodily difference, without having to identify disability with natural bodily difference. This means that any view that includes a distinct notion of impairment faces the challenge of cashing out this notion in naturalistic terms. As Elizabeth Barnes (2016) has convincingly argued, this is an impossible task because no such account can distinguish impairment from mere atypicality without invoking value-laden considerations. We challenge the widely held assumption that impairment must be a natural kind if it is worth distinguishing it from disability by offering an account of impairment as a social kind that we call marginalised functioning. We argue that this account avoids the problems faced by naturalistic accounts of impairment whilst also giving a more satisfactory account of disability than Barnes' own account.

Chong-Ming Lim (Oxford), 'Disabilities Are Also Legitimately Medically Interesting Constraints on Legitimate Interests'

Abstract: What is it for something to be a disability? Elizabeth Barnes, focusing on physical disabilities, argues that disability is a social category. It depends on the rules undergirding the judgements of the disability rights movement(s). Barnes’ account may strike many as implausible. I articulate the unease, in the form of three worries about Barnes’ account. It does not fully explain why the disability rights movement is constituted in such a way that it only picks out paradigmatic disability traits, nor why only the traits identified by the movement as constituting experiences of social and political constraint count as disability. It also leaves out the contribution of people other than disability activists, to the definition of disability. I develop Barnes’ account. On my account, a person is disabled if she is in some state which is constitutive of some constraint on her legitimate interests. This state must be the subject of legitimate medical interest, and be picked out by the disability rights movement(s) as among the traits they are seeking to promote progress and change for. My account addresses the worries about Barnes’ account. It is also able to include all disabilities, rather than only physical ones.

Matthew J Cull (Sheffield), 'Deflationary Accounts of the Metaphysics of Social Kinds: Extensional Intuitions and Self-Identification Considered'

Abstract: In this paper I develop and criticise deflationary accounts of the metaphysics of a social kind: gender. I suggest that neither deflationary accounts based on extensional intuitions, such as that given by Mari Mikkola, nor deflationary accounts based on self-identification are satisfactory. Nonetheless, this critical discussion will provide two interesting positive conclusions. First, that self-identification can, in the right context, ground (though not anchor) gender, and second, a positive epistemic claim about the role that self-identifications play in the ascription of gender.

Odin Kroeger (Vienna), 'A Metaphysics of Intersectionality?'

Robin Dembroff (Yale), 'Beyond the (Theoretical) Binary: Genderqueer and Political Gender Categories'

Abstract: Philosophers want to know what gender is. But, without fail, metaphysical approaches to this question have focused almost exclusively on the binary gender categories men and women. By footnoting (literally) non-binary gender categories, the target phenomena for analysis has been overly narrowed, generating theories that are insufficient for capturing what I call `political gender categories'. Political gender categories are categories where membership is (at least in part) due to enacting a critical political orientation toward the dominant gender ideology in one's context. In this paper, I develop a model of these categories, focusing on one such category -- genderqueer. I argue that membership in this category is (at least in part) due to enacting a critical political orientation toward a binary classification of gender (and with it, of sexuality). My model, I argue, is a vital supplement to metaphysical theories of gender currently on offer. These theories almost exclusively analyze gender in terms of either social position or self-identity, both of which erase the possibility of gender categories, like genderqueer, where membership reflects a particular form of political critique.

Further information:

The conference venue and accommodation will be fully wheelchair accessible. We are committed to meeting other access requirements wherever possible, and we will endeavour to make conference materials available to participants in advance. We will provide details of local childcare facilities to participants, and we hope to have bursaries available to offset childcare costs. We aim to make the conference financially accessible, through reduced registration costs for students and unwaged/underemployed participants. A number of student bursaries will also be available. Full details on accessibility and bursaries will be available once registration opens. 

If you have any questions about the conference, please email

The conference is supported financially by the Mind Association, the Society for Applied Philosophy, the Aristotelian Society, and the Analysis Trust.

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July 5, 2018, 5:00pm BST

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Who is attending?

9 people are attending:

Nottingham University
Camille F. Camille
and 7 more.

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Camille F. Camille
Tyler John

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#Nottingham, #Social philosophy, #Social metaphysics, #Gender, #Race, #Metaphysics, #Disability

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