Eva Feder Kittay: 2014 Guggenheim Fellow

Eva Feder Kittay, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Stony Brook University and Senior Fellow of the Stony Brook Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics, has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete a book tentatively titled Disabled Minds and Things that Matter: Lessons for a Humbler Philosophy. The prestigious fellowship, which places Professor Kittay in the company of many illustrious names, which also includes a lengthy list of noble prize laureates (Czeslaw Milosz being a particular favourite of mine), was established in 1925 and is granted to individuals whose work makes substantial contributions to education, literature, art, and science. Professor Kittay’s work pushes philosophical discourse beyond the inadequate rationalistic framework that has traditionally been utilized to measure the worth of persons. She urges that actual relationships of care and love characterize who we are and why we are morally considerable. Equipped with both the argumentative and analytic tools of a philosopher and the personal experience of being a parent of a child with severe cognitive disabilities, Eva Kittay is in a unique position to play the part of a competent judge whose insights have great philosophical, and more saliently, educational value. Although Disabled Minds and Things that Matter: Lessons for a Humbler Philosophy will be a philosophically rigorous contemplation on the place of disability in philosophical discourse, it will nevertheless be aimed at the educated lay reader, meaning that it will not only shape future philosophical projects, but will also serve to educate the public.

Why is a focus on disability important to the future of philosophical research? Taking severe cognitive disabilities into account when formulating questions in philosophy will force us to reframe both traditional and contemporary inquiries. For example, the rationalistic model of personhood inherited from Aristotle and Kant as well as the numerous individualistic psychological accounts of diachronic personal identity that have been developed since Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding will have to give way to other, more inclusive models and accounts that better represent the relational nature of memory, personhood, and moral status of human beings. Relational personhood and an extended account of personal identity, which is the focus of my own research is indebted to such fundamental reframing of philosophical questions by placing the interests of individuals with severe cognitive disabilities at the centre of our philosophical contemplations regarding the moral status of persons. If placing disability at the centre of philosophical inquiry helps philosophy transcend its current theoretical bounds, then not only is Eva Kittay correct in suggesting that disability is at the frontier of philosophy itself, but Professor Kittay and those her research project inspires to work at the intersection of philosophy and disability studies are forging a new philosophical direction in the time honoured spirit of philosophical innovation and transformation.

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One thought on “Eva Feder Kittay: 2014 Guggenheim Fellow

  1. For those interested, an excerpt from Professor Kittay’s project description, which focuses on her life and work focused on cognitive disability (all ellipses mine): “… the contradictions between philosophically normative conceptions of the human and those I have formed in my experiences with my disabled daughter have cried out for a resolution. Either my child was not fully human—that is, not fully worthy of the status of personhood—or the philosophical conceptions were at best incomplete, and at worst, wrong. As a parent, I have taken the truth to reside in my experience with my daughter. … In my lived experience, the self-evident truths are that her life has dignity, and that she is worthy of care and the entire panoply of human rights; but as a philosopher, I have felt the obligation to justify these views. What I first experienced as contradictions I have now come to see as lessons: lessons that I have learned in the forty-three years that my daughter has tutored me and that I have wanted to impart to professional philosophers and to the general public alike. To minds open to the adventure, these lessons can be used to challenge philosophical dogma and to enrich not only philosophical practice, but also our lives. I have devoted the latter part of my career to this task. The book I am writing, tentatively entitled Disabled Minds and Things that Matter: Lessons for a Humbler Philosophy, is the culmination of this work. The book asks us to consider how certain traditional and contemporary questions in philosophy are reframed when we include people with serious cognitive disabilities within the scope of the inquiry. … I believe that disability is at the frontier of philosophy itself. For although a consideration of cognitive disability appears so alien to the lofty abstractions and intellectual flights of the philosophical mind, the endeavor proposed here pushes philosophy beyond its previous borders and so follows in the best tradition of philosophical thought. What philosophers have too often taken as self-evident is that a set of defining intrinsic traits can define what it is to be human. The argument that runs through this book urges instead that actual relationships of care and love undermine such a priori certitudes and enlarge our vision of who we are. The lived experience with people with cognitive disabilities forces us to engage in a Socratic questioning of entrenched philosophical positions …”.

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