Although feminist philosophers have been critical of the gendered norms contained within the history of philosophy, they have not extended this critical analysis to norms concerning disability. In the history of Western philosophy, disability has often functioned as a metaphor for something that has gone awry. This trope, according to which disability is something that has gone wrong, is amply criticized within Disability Studies, though not within the tradition of philosophy itself or even within feminist philosophy. In this paper, I use one instance of this disability metaphor, contained within a passage from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Philosophy of Right, in order to show that paying attention to disability and disability theory can enable identification of ableist assumptions within the tradition of philosophy and can also open up new interpretations of canonical texts. On my reading, whereas Hegel's expressed views of disability are dismissive, his logic and its treatment of contingency offer up useful ways to situate and re-evaluate disability as part of the concept of humanity. Disability can in fact be useful to Hegel, especially in the context of his valorization of experiences of disruption and disorientation. Broadening our understanding of the possible ways that the philosophical tradition has conceived human beings allows us to better draw on its theoretical resources.


Traditionally, philosophy has concerned itself with what is universal: phenomena that fall away from a universalized norm have generally been regarded as mistakes or defects. Within philosophy, therefore, disability, which takes many forms and thus resists universalization, has generally been either ignored, explicitly ruled out of consideration as aberration or monstrosity, or variously used as a thought-experiment or counter example. 1 In fact, disability has often functioned in the history of philosophy as a metaphor for something that has gone awry. The metaphor (and the assumption that underlies it), according to which disability must be "bad," has been amply criticized within Disability Studies. 2 So far, however, these critiques have not affected the treatment of this metaphor within history of philosophy scholarship. Although feminist philosophical analysis of the exclusionary norms implied by the canon has focused almost entirely on the use of gender, it is vital that the scope and focus of this analysis be expanded. In this paper, therefore, I examine one instance of this disability metaphor, found within a passage from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Philosophy of Right, in order to show that a closer analysis of disability within the history of philosophy can serve to open up provocative and fruitful interpretations of philosophical texts. While Hegel's influence on social theory in general and feminist theory in particular has been pervasive, he is often regarded as a problematic thinker. Despite the problems with Hegel's expressed views, however, on my reading, he offers a rich set of theoretical resources with which to combat universalist and dogmatic pronouncements of fixed human nature; resources, that is, that invite and encourage us to broaden our understanding of what human beings can be.

Gender and Disability in Hegel

Despite his well-known misogyny, there has been a considerable amount of feminist scholarship on Hegel. 3 Given the sexist legacy of the canon in general, if we are to work with it, we must find strategies for rereading and reinterpretation of its sexism. That is, feminists should reread canonical philosophers like Hegel in order to advance their own feminist ends and find precursors to strains of feminist thought in the work of these philosophers since, as Charlotte Witt notes, it can work "as confirmation that a feminist perspective or problem is securely rooted in our philosophical culture" (Witt 2004, 2). Equally, rereading the history of philosophy to find precursors to strains of disability theory would help to reinforce and confirm these strains within philosophy. Indeed, incorporating disability into the new (re)readings of the tradition that feminist philosophers have undertaken would serve to enhance our understanding of how the structure of normalization affects multiple aspects of identity. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, "considering disability shifts the conceptual framework to strengthen our understanding of how these multiple systems intertwine, redefine, and mutually constitute one another" (Garland-Thomson 2011, 16). My aim is to show that Hegel would be an especially fruitful philosophical resource in this regard, since he both challenges traditional dichotomies and reinscribes them, offering a rich field of analysis for a feminist philosophy of disability. In order to do so, I shall first discuss the existing feminist work on Hegel; then, through a consideration of the ways in which how disability functions within his system, I shall turn to show how this feminist work would be improved and deepened if it were to incorporate philosophical analyses of disability.

Feminist criticisms of Hegel are usually focused on his explicit comments about women, especially in his discussions of the family and the role of Antigone. For Hegel, men and women are functionally complementary, with men in a dominant role. Women are consigned to the home, to the family (Hegel 1991a, §§ 165-6). Because they do not leave the household, women seem to be denied the progression and development of their ethical self-consciousness (Mills 1996, 81). Seyla Benhabib points out that there were intellectual women—such as Caroline Schlegel Schelling—around Hegel that he could have regarded as counter-examples to his claims about women's diminished abilities, although he recoiled from their nonconformity (Benhabib 1996, 36-38). Other feminists criticize the hostility that they see implied by Hegel's remarks in the Phenomenology of Spirit, according to which our recognition of the Other is an encounter shaped by hostility (Hegel 1977, §§178-189). Linda Alcoff, for instance, criticizes Hegel's insistence that the Other must be "overcome" (2006, 57-59).

These criticisms can, however, be tempered by the work of Hegel scholars. With respect to Hegel's explicit statements about women, some of these scholars argue that Hegel is more or less the product of his time and that the overall gist of his philosophy can accommodate a different role for women. 4 Of course, doing so properly would involve a fair amount of reconstruction. Nevertheless, some feminist philosophers argue that Hegel can be updated in this way. For example, Heidi Ravven argues that Hegel's restriction of women to the family sphere is the result of "sentimentality and/or prejudice," however, "at a more basic level, nothing in the Hegelian philosophic approach would seem to necessitate this extraordinary lapse in the empathic understanding of women" (Ravven 1996, 239). She also argues that if Hegel's idea of freedom were developed further, it could accommodate a much more progressive version of society, while still retaining its particular insights about the role of the family (241-42). In addition, Hegel scholars can point out that the hostile encounter of the Other in the Phenomenology of Spirit is not Hegel's final word on recognition; although, in that context, Hegel portrayed the encounter as a deficient form of recognition, he provided other accounts of recognition elsewhere. 5

For a feminist philosopher like me, who has an ongoing interest in and concern with Hegel's thought, the more troubling criticisms come from feminist philosophers who have worked through the details and implications of his system as a whole. For example, Alison Stone argues that gendered opposition within Hegel's philosophy is not merely confined to his discussion of the family; rather, gendered opposition is deeply embedded in Hegel's system, in his very understanding of nature, and the relationship of concept and matter (Stone 2010, 212-3). Since Hegel associates form or concept with the male and matter with the female, in common with most of the Western philosophical tradition, his identification of matter as the "being-outside-itself of the concept" means Hegel "implicitly understands the female as the being-outside-itself of the male—as an inverted and inferior form of the male, rather than as a sexuate identity in its own right." Thus, Hegel's account of the process of nature, where the concept shapes matter more and more in conformity with it, "amounts to a progressive mastery of the female by the male" (212; emphasis in Stone). That this account is deeply embedded in Hegel's thinking means that it is not possible to strategically bracket gender to the side and to continue to use other aspects of his philosophy. Furthermore, the character of this account also raises troubling questions, more generally, about the role of contingency in Hegel. Finally, this focus on mastery seems as though it would be at odds with much of the tendency of Disability Studies to resist the push toward normalization.

Despite her critical analysis, Stone continues to think that feminist philosophers can use Hegel. Elsewhere, she points out the usefulness of the master/slave dialectic, of Hegel's work on recognition, and of his dialectical logic that shows "how one concept, when isolated or separated from its antithesis, tends to collapse back into or become invaded by its antithesis" (Stone, in Bauer, Hutchings, Pulkinnen, and Stone 2010, 234). She cautions that feminists must acknowledge the gendered structure of his philosophy and that "our efforts to use and reconstruct Hegelian ideas [must] be informed by this acknowledgement. Otherwise we run the risk of inadvertently reproducing in our own thinking the very gendered schemata that we aim, as feminists, to expose and challenge" (Stone 2010, 228). Hegel's philosophy can be used, but in doing so, Stone notes, "we need simultaneously to reconstruct and reinterpret that philosophy, or the parts of it that we are using, in a more gender-egalitarian form" (229). In this paper, I go one step further than Stone advises by situating such a reconstruction and reinterpretation of Hegel's philosophy within a disability theory framework. A rereading of Hegel's system within this framework will show that his logic, in particular, provides a useful theoretical tool for feminists and disability theorists.

Unlike the prominent place given to discussions about women and the community in the Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of Right and about the structure of gender in the Philosophy of Nature, Hegel's mentions of disability and impairment are few: references to "monstrosities" in the Philosophy of Nature; a discussion of cognitive disability or "derangement" in the Anthropology; a comment that "blind people are particularly attentive to the symbolism of the human voice" (Hegel 2007, §401A); a reference to madness within the context of criminal guilt in the Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1991a, §132R); and a comparison, also within the Philosophy of Right, between a defective state and "the ugliest man, the criminal, the invalid, or the cripple" (§258A). If the role of gender, which is much more explicitly discussed in Hegel, has been routinely ignored by scholars of his work, 6 it is not surprising that until now the role of disability within his thought has not been a topic of analysis.

On further examination, one notices that many of Hegel's mentions of disability and in particular his comment about "the cripple" are deeply embedded in his account of contingency and its relation to the concept, as I will demonstrate below. Hegel himself reminds us that we should not be one-sided in our reasoning about contingency: contingencies may not be disregarded as entirely irrelevant. Although Hegel's references to disability seem dismissive, an interpretation of them that draws on both disability theory and the strategies of feminist scholars who use his work allows us to reframe these references as significant moments of his philosophy. As I have indicated, Stone argues that Hegel's account of form and matter reveals the gendered opposition deep in his system. Following Stone's example, I will show that Hegel's account of contingency has fruitful implications for his treatment of disability. Just as Stone argues that awareness of this gendered structure is key to the transformation and reimagining of Hegel's philosophy for feminist needs, I will argue that an awareness of the ways that Hegel treats contingency provides both a starting point for rethinking disability in his philosophy and conceptual support for disability theory itself.

"The ugliest man, the criminal, the invalid, or the cripple"

The types of examples that can best show evidence of underlying assumptions are sometimes to be found in the margins and unpolished sections of philosophical texts, where a philosopher's argument may be less philosophically precise than in the polished version itself, allowing more of the philosopher's unconsidered thought to be conveyed. With Hegel, a particularly rich source of such inquiry can be found in his lectures, preserved in student lecture notes. Hegel's editors drew from these notes, often merging different iterations of his courses together, to provide additions to several of Hegel's texts. Although these additions must be read with a grain of salt, for the most part they are reliable and can be linked back to their sources. One addition, from the Philosophy of Right, is concerned with clarifying how we should study existing states in the light of Hegel's critical philosophy. The use of examples in this addition deserves scrutiny:

Any state, even if we pronounce it bad in the light of our own principles, and even if we discover this or that defect in it, invariably has the essential moments of its existence [Existenz] within itself (provided it is one of the more advanced states of our time). But since it is easier to discover deficiencies than to comprehend the affirmative, one may easily fall into the mistake of overlooking the inner organism of the state in favour of individual [einzelne] aspects. The state is not a work of art; it exists in the world, and hence in the sphere of arbitrariness, contingency, and error, and bad behaviour may disfigure it in many respects. But the ugliest man, the criminal, the invalid, or the cripple is still a living human being; the affirmative aspect—life—survives [besteht] in spite of such deficiencies, and it is with this affirmative aspect that we are here concerned (Hegel 1991a, §258A).

"Deficiency," here, is the English translation of Mangel, which can also be translated as "defect" or "lack." The original lecture notes, from K.G. Griesheim, read slightly differently, separating out the "deficient" cases into two clusters: "But the ugliest man, [and] the criminal, is still a human being. An invalid, a cripple, is still a living human being." (Hegel 1974, 633). 7 Although the ugliest man and the criminal do not seem to have anything in common beyond the assumption that they both are "deficient," the invalid and the "cripple" are linked more explicitly with biological concerns. They are both deficiently human and deficiently living. The criminal, for Hegel, has at least chosen to act in a certain way, and thus is reinforced as an agent even in the midst of his or her deficiency. The deficiency attributed to the "invalid" and the "cripple" is due to the contingency of nature. Their agency—which for Hegel is central to human personhood—is overshadowed in their classification.

All four of Hegel's examples in this addition illustrate what Susan Wendell (1996, 60) describes as the classification of "Others": "we group them together as the objects of our experience instead of regarding them as subjects of experience with whom we might identify, and we see them primarily as symbolic of something else—usually, but not always, something we reject and fear and project onto them." Hegel's invocation of sickness and disability as analogous to political injustice reveals that, despite the text's affirmation that the sick person and disabled person are living human beings, they are not quite fully human. Both the original version from the lecture notes and the editors' "Addition" to the Philosophy of Right illustrate ableist assumptions in the ease with which they link ugliness, criminality, and sickness to disability. This type of linking is common in organic philosophies of the state—where any kind of disorder or disruption within the body politic is equated metaphorically with a disease of an organic body—can be found as far back in the history of philosophy as the precursors of the body politic metaphor in Plato and the medieval period. 8 That this linkage has a long history does not mean that its occurrence within the Hegelian context should pass without scrutiny. The comment should be contextualized within Hegel's philosophy as a whole. "Additions" to the Encyclopaedia Logic, though they do not mention "the cripple" again, are clearly similar: "a bad State or a sick body may exist all the same, but they are 'untrue' because their concept and their reality do not correspond to one another" (Hegel 1991b, §135A); "It may certainly be correct that someone is ill, or has stolen something; but a content like this is not 'true,' for an ill body is not in agreement with the concept of life, and similarly theft is an action that does not correspond to the concept of human action" (§172A). 9 The similarity of these comments to the one in the Philosophy of Right, despite the Philosophy of Right's different subject matter, exemplifies the way that this type of comparison seems obvious and straightforward to Hegel, something that could be raised during the course of a lecture. Furthermore, the second of these comments goes even farther to link illness and criminality as deficiencies of a similar type.

Despite Hegel's metaphorical linkages here, a fuller story can be told about how disability might be situated within his system as both something contingent and particular to individuals and something of universal significance that contributes to our idea of humanity. Doing so requires understanding the role of contingency and the meaning of "truth" for Hegel.

The Concept, the Idea, and Truth

In order to understand the type of deficiency with which Hegel is concerned in the examples above, it is important to clarify the relation that he draws between truth and the concept. This relation is what Hegel explains when he invokes the aforementioned examples in the Encyclopaedia Logic. Exploring this relation will clarify the way that Hegel works with norms and exceptions, which is important for understanding the resources that his work offers analyses of disability.

For Hegel, the concept is a form of thought that includes the moments of the universal [Allgemeine], the particular [Besondere], and the singular or individual [Einzelne]. Concepts are not immediately known. We come to know a concept through the process of thinking it through and also living it historically, such that we perceive the distinctions within it (Hegel 1991b, §§160-162). This claim in Hegel may seem obscure, and certainly it is the subject of much Hegel commentary. An example of a determinate concept may help: Freedom may initially be taken to be quite abstract—solely an absence of restriction on my will. Any determination would initially be deemed a limitation or restriction on my freedom. Further reflection, however, reveals that these determinations are essential to my freedom to be the particular person that I am, rather than be some other person. Hegel gives an example of the freedom that determination enables when he refers to young people who resist settling into a career, believing it to curtail their freedom (Hegel 1991a, §207A). His point is that developing competency and skills in a particular field contributes to a given individual's sense of identity and self-confidence, causing him or her to feel more at home with himself or herself. Additionally, I am in part defined by what I have chosen not to pursue, and by what I am not; my identity is constituted in part by difference. 10 Freedom as unlimited and without restriction is an abstract, and thus empty, notion, for the freedom of a human life, as Hegel sees it, requires determination in specific contexts and practices. This full human freedom cannot be fully appreciated and appropriated without living through it. Thinking of concepts this way means that easy definitions are always untrue to the extent that they oversimplify or abstract away from their subject. A determinate concept does not exist separately from its instantiation and development in the world.

A fully realized and objectively instantiated concept is an Idea. 11 Hegel describes the Idea as "the adequate Notion, that which is objectively true, or the true as such" (Hegel 1989, 755, emphasis in Hegel; "Notion" is Miller's translation of Begriff or "concept"). In other words, truth is the relationship of the concept (as we come to think of it) to its presence in the actual world. The actual world informs our developing understanding of the concept, but so too the concept informs our understanding and experience of the world. This relationship between the world and the concept means that, for Hegel, "the reality that does not correspond to the Notion is mere Appearance, the subjective, contingent, capricious element that is not the truth" (756; emphasis in Hegel). Separating contingency from truth may seem quite restrictive, and so we will return to what Hegel means by contingency below in order to understand what role it plays in the concept. The key things to note here are: first, we come to learn what the concept is over time; second, the concept is differentiated within itself and contains different ways in which to be expressed; and third, that truth for Hegel is not a binary.

Truth, for Hegel, is clearly far removed from the positivistic ideas of it associated with the Enlightenment that postmodernists criticize. 12 For Hegel, an objective state of affairs can be more or less true (or conversely, more or less untrue) to the extent that it more or less fully realizes its concept. The realization of the concept is a matter of degree, down to the smallest degree. Hegel writes: "the worst state, one whose reality least corresponds to the Notion in so far as it still exists, is still Idea; the individuals still obey a dominant Notion" (Hegel 1989, 758). To better understand how the truth of a concept plays out, it is important to grasp the way that particular, universal, and singular interrelate. I am determined in distinction from others through various particularities—my gender, my race, my physical and mental disabilities, my class background, and so forth. These particularities may in turn be considered abstractly, as properties that occur in multiple instances, as universals. These universals, however, are only actual insofar as they are instantiated within concrete singular individuals; similarly, each particularity can be fully understood only once I broaden my understanding of it beyond my immediate experience of it. The union of particularity and universality within singularity is what Hegel means by totality (Hegel 1991b, §163). Hegel writes, "every determinate Notion is, of course, empty in so far as it does not contain the totality, but only a one-sided determinateness" (Hegel 1989, 609-610; emphasis in Hegel). In other words, "each of its moments can only be grasped immediately on the basis of and together with the others" (Hegel 1991b, §164). Because concepts are made actual only through their instantiation in concrete individuals, and concrete individuals are made up of many determinations, the meaning of the concept must include the way in which a given determination is affected by the context of its interaction with others. On Hegel's account, then, we cannot understand gender, race, disability, class, and so forth, on their own, but only how these aspects of identity play out within their intermingling within the lived and reflected-upon experience of human beings. We can study them on their own, but this inquiry will only ever be an abstraction, inadequate to the concept. For Hegel, an abstraction may be correct—that is, it may correspond to a given state of affairs—but is not properly called true (Hegel 1989, 636).

What does this feature of Hegel mean for the passage under investigation in which he says that a sick person and a "cripple" are untrue because they fail to live up to their concept? In one respect, these figures are hardly unique in doing so, though we will investigate later on what disability might specifically mean for Hegel. For Hegel, the logic of the Idea ultimately suggests that we need to consider every thing as interconnected with every other thing in order to have a completely adequate story. The consequence of this logic of interconnection is, therefore, that any finite thing, considered on its own and hence abstracted from its context, is partially untrue. Part of the essence of all finite things is that they die or are destroyed and then pass over into something else (Hegel 1991b, §81A). 13 It is also part of their essence that they affect, and are affected by, what is around them. Thus, no finite thing lives up to its determinate concept on its own (Hegel 1989, 129-133, 136-7). This insight is particularly powerful within Hegel's logic, for it connects to a general argument for interdependency and against atomism that runs throughout his system, from the metaphysical to the social (Wallace 2005, 319-322).

Insofar as the "invalid" and the "cripple" exist, then, they participate to some extent in the Idea, and a full story about what they are will have to begin to investigate their connections to their environment and to the other finite beings around them. A full story about the invalid and the cripple will also require that we investigate the way that sickness and disability interrelate with the other particularities of the given single individual. To invoke "the invalid" or "the cripple" is to invoke a one-sided abstract universal. The status of this kind of abstract universal within Hegel's system is always conditioned by a kind of promissory note within the system: it will be revealed as something that is not able to stand on its own for long because it is always already deeply dependent upon its contexts and concrete instantiations.

In asserting that "the cripple is still a living human being," Hegel joins together two abstract universals that can only be understood in their truth within the full context of a human life. Hegel intended his examples to bring out the "affirmative aspect" of each of these universals: that a bad state still embodies the more general concept of the state. With regard to disability, focusing on the "affirmative aspect" in this way describes an untrue abstraction. Hegel's affirmation that "the cripple is still a living human being" can be read as structurally akin to person-first language around disability: it decouples the agent, who partakes in what is at the core of humanity, from a condition that is understood to be an accidental and contingent quality. Hegel's comment seems to posit some distinct core to a living human being that is separable from the experience of having a disability (or being ugly, or sick). As I have now explained, however, his philosophy makes clear that there is no such separable core to a human being that is untouched by the effects of environment, upbringing, culture, and encounters with others, all of which constitute the way that disability is experienced.

A more troubling fact is that Hegel's example still implies a certain badness to being disabled and a denial that disability might be properly part of the concept of humanity. This implication, too, can be connected to criticisms of people-first language. For example, Tanya Titchkosky argues that the problem with person-first language is that although it is designed to honor the personhood of the agent, it does not change the meaning of disability, for, in its terms, disability remains a stigmatized condition (Titchkosky 2001, 138). Furthermore, by setting itself up as a hegemonic norm for describing disability, person-first language erases alternatives, such as seeing disability as a relation between person and environment, as an identity category, as constituted by assumptions about normalcy, or as something that appears "through narrative in social life" (135). James Overboe explains his preference for the term disabled persons in this way: "it implies that [people's] disabilities not only inform their lives but may also be a positive factor in many aspects of their lives" (Overboe 1999, 24). In person-first language, disability remains a pathology of the individual agent, even if the agent is recognized as a person. Despite Hegel's rich understanding of the way in which individual identities are shaped, his valuation of disability still requires reimagining.

The Role of Contingency

Thus far, I have investigated how Hegel's philosophy could incorporate disability in ways that go beyond its use as mere metaphor. The arguments of disability theorists that call for a different valuation of the situation of "the cripple" would, however, change the standard Hegelian story. "Cripple," after all, is treated by Hegel as an obvious analogue to an imperfection of the state, rather as than another way to be human. Within the Philosophy of Nature, as well as in the paragraph from the Philosophy of Right cited above, a departure from the norm is referred to as a deficiency or a lack (Hegel 1970, §250). Disability, in Hegel, is a negatively-valued attribute, a natural defect, rather than a contingent aspect of someone's ever-developing identity and social positioning. Within the history of philosophy, in particular, and throughout the history of Western cultures, more generally, disability has been represented and viewed in this way; however, the insights of the disability rights movement and the critical disability studies movement show that it need not be. Rethinking Hegel's philosophy with these insights about disability in mind allows us to reimagine and reappropriate his philosophy in ways that are suggested by Stone's insights about gender in his writing. When disability is re-evaluated and reimagined as a contingent determination, rather than a defect, it becomes simply one more aspect of human life, contributing to who we are concretely. The reading of Hegel's philosophy developed thus far could accommodate such a conception of disability. How, we might ask, would this conception of disability affect the Hegelian understanding of humanity? And how would it contribute to the ongoing development of the concept? To explore the possibilities that these questions introduce into Hegel's thought, it is important to understand how contingencies play into philosophy.

Contingent matters of fact have an uneasy status within Hegel's philosophy. On the one hand, Hegel is concerned with what is universal and necessary as part of the unfolding of the concept. In describing a state that would promote the fullest development of human freedom, Hegel is interested in the necessary, not the contingent, features of such a state: "the infinitely varied circumstances which take shape within this externality as the essence manifests itself within it, this infinite material and its organization, are not the subject-matter of philosophy" (Hegel 1991a, 21). Hegel also argues that the contingent features of the natural world "set limits to philosophy," since they do not adequately conform to the concept (Hegel 1970, §250R). As Stone summarizes, "that there are contingent features can be established a priori, but, just because they are contingent, what those features are cannot be deduced" (Stone 2005, 79; emphasis in Stone). On the other hand, to ignore the contingencies that arise is precisely to ignore the things that give a particular state, organism, or event its concrete existence and historical identity. To abstract away from the contingencies, would diminish our thinking of the given state, organism, or event. Hegel (1991b) notes the need to balance our attitude toward the contingent:

It is quite correct to say that the task of science and, more precisely, of philosophy, consists generally in coming to know the necessity that is hidden under the semblance of contingency; but this must not be understood to mean that contingency pertains only to our subjective views and that it must therefore be set aside totally if we wish to attain the truth. Scientific endeavours which one-sidedly push in this direction will not escape the justified reproach of being an empty game and a strained pedantry. (§145A)

It is difficult to know how to strike the correct balance. Michael Inwood points out ambiguity within the claim that something is contingent, since it could mean that something is purely caused by chance, or that although there is a reason for its occurrence, the reason is inaccessible to us, or that we do know the reason but that philosophy cannot show it to be necessary and a priori (Inwood 1992, 199). Probably the wisest thing to do is to consider what meaning the contingent phenomenon might have and how it would fit in with the rest of our picture of the world: What might it teach us? Can we take it as a challenge to common assumptions? Is there a pattern we have not yet grasped? Even if there is no such pattern, or we are unable to find it, the process of acting and reflecting is likely to do us good. Consider illness. The presence of any given illness is contingent—as Hegel notes, any particular disease can be caused by "ageing, dying, and congenital defects" and susceptibility to "external influences" (Hegel 1970, §371A). Despite this, illness itself is not only inescapable, it is necessary and plays an important role in the life and development of the organism and the species: "[T]he organism can recover from disease; but disease is in its very nature, and herein lies the necessity of death, i.e., of this dissolution in which the series of processes becomes the empty process which does not return into itself" (§375A). Illness, then, is not something that can be ignored or wished away in the Philosophy of Nature; it serves its purpose in the text and has meaning.

In short, we ought not to ignore the existence or occurrence of given contingent phenomena. The truth that we seek, according to Hegel, relies on recognizing the context into which phenomena fit. The human being, as a determinate concept, does not exist separately from its instantiation in actual human beings. Actual concrete human beings are continually developing and exist within actual concrete contexts that are themselves continually developing. How do we develop? In this regard, it must be acknowledged that Hegel repeatedly reveals his own assumptions about how human beings should develop. We are supposed to develop and cultivate ourselves to diminish our idiosyncrasies (Hegel 1991a, §187A). We are expected to have control over ourselves in our gait (Hegel 2007, §411A) and in our laughter (§401A): Hegel associates unrestrained actions with vulgarity of character. Nevertheless, he also rejects the idea of forcibly controlling particularity, arguing that one of the primary roles of the state is to promote the recognition of "personal individuality," that is, an individuality in relation to others (Hegel 1991a, §260). The structure of Hegel's system, which balances universal and particular, necessary and contingent, entails that his endorsement of particularist visions of the human precludes his imposition of any of them as norms.

Thus, Hegel's own system offers reasons for the rejection of his association of concept with the male, an association that Stone criticizes. If the concept of humanity is something that develops continually, then there is no reason why it should not accommodate different theories of gender than Hegel himself intended. The flexibility in the concept of humanity in Hegel's philosophy has often been missed, argues Tuija Pulkinnen, because feminist philosophers have been misled by the strain of Hegel interpretation derived from Alexandre Kojève's influential reading in the 1930s. In Kojève's reading, which provided the basis for most twentieth-century phenomenological interpretations of Hegel, the human being is exemplary; in addition, gender norms are thought of as foundational and static. Pulkinnen argues that Hegel does not need to be read this way; that without the focus on the human as exemplar, Hegelian ontology opens up in a way that is useful to feminist thinking: "[I]n Hegelian thought, without the Kojèvian interpretation, the interest is not in the stable features of the human; instead, human beings are always conceived of as already being within a culture, and in the eternally changing process of cultures and history in the infinite and unconcluded process of the spirit" (Pulkinnen 2010, 26).

Although Pulkinnen confines her analysis to gender, there is no reason why we should stop there. On the contrary, we can extend the analysis in order to argue that the way in which any given individual's experience of disability plays out is highly particular and contingent. Philosophy cannot dictate what the experience of disability will be in every case; however, it can examine the commonalities—communicated and shared—that emerge from the experiences of disparate single individuals. These commonalities can in turn be incorporated into the concept. Disability thus functions as both a particular and a universal feature of human life, universal and particular insofar as it is a possibility for every human being (Bérubé 1998, x). As Hegel's logic teaches, disability cannot be understood as only particular or only universal. Although each of these ways of understanding disability is partly true, neither way on its own is fully adequate to the concept, which requires both of them, both to be thought together, to be actualized in singular individuals. In short, there is, therefore, no reason to exclude disability from the concept of humanity. Nevertheless, we can still think further about what disability productively contributes to the concept. Following Titchkosky and Overboe, we should aim to transform the meaning that Hegel attributes to disability. In this regard, we should consider the significance of disability for overturning the assumed norms on which Hegel's philosophy is largely based.

Disruption, Disorientation, and the Dialectic

Hegel regularly describes the progression of Spirit as spurred forward through experiences of disorientation, discomfort, and conflict between our assumptions or expectations and that with which we are confronted. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, our path toward knowledge of ourselves and the world is called the "way of despair" (Hegel 1977, §78). Hegel writes that "the onset of the new spirit is the product of a widespread upheaval in various forms of culture, the prize at the end of a complicated, tortuous path and of just as variegated and strenuous an effort" (§12). For example, the legal status of personhood emerges as a distinct ethical form of life out of the clash between the law of the city and the divine law that privileges familial relations.

In the Philosophy of Right, furthermore, Hegel describes the individual's transition from the intimacy of family life into the public, economic realm (which he refers to as "civil society"). In this realm, each individual seeks to fulfill its own particular needs through the exchange of goods and services, creating an interwoven system, the "system of needs." Feminist philosophers rightly criticize Hegel's assumptions that only men make this transition, as well as his description of the young man's emergence from the family which seems to contain gendered assumptions about the nature of independence and the process of individuation and separation from the mother. 14 Hegel's account inevitably reminds us, however, that the idea of a cozy family isolated from the larger public sphere is actually false: civil society "subjects the existence [Bestehen] of the whole family itself to dependence on civil society and to contingency" (Hegel 1991a, §238). The move to civil society reveals something about the way that the family always already was: a part of a greater whole, dependent upon the contingency of the system of needs for its survival, only one particular vantage point from which to understand the world, and a vantage point that can be challenged.

My intention is to draw out the way that this transition to civil society provides a useful account of how a disorienting experience is important to the individual's moral development. Within the family, relations are ideally constituted through immediate family and love (Hegel 1991a, §158), whereas in civil society relations are constituted through an individual's instrumental value. The move into civil society is not an easy one. The family helps prepare the young person for the broader world, but then "civil society tears the individual [Individuum] away from family ties, alienates the members of the family from one another, and recognizes them as self-sufficient persons" (§238). Civil society reveals that different members of the family have different interests and needs. In addition, civil society exposes the individual to the uncertainty of negotiating different worlds and sets of priorities (§181). Hegel describes this discomfort as opening up the chance to learn and develop. While restricted to the family, the individual may have been ignorant of the interconnected relationships required to provide for the family's needs and thus unaware of the way that his or her existence depends on a whole web of others. Taking a place within civil society exposes the individual to the existence of this system of needs and thus to the demands of others beyond the family (§§182-3). Even though the values of civil society are constituted by instrumentality, the progression toward civil society is the first step in the extension of the individual's ethical awareness.

This discussion in Hegel prefigures insights found in both contemporary feminist and disability theory. Feminist standpoint theory draws on the idea that lived experience that contradicts the expected norms offers the opportunity for an epistemic advantage in reflection about those norms. Edwina Barvosa (2007) argues that the experience of negotiating multiple and often contradictory cultures and communities, which she calls "mestiza consciousness," works to enhance autonomy, competency, and self-reflection. This consciousness is a "conscious state of cognitive struggle," which "can generate an ongoing creative process that provides the self with a critical distance from which to assess, reject, adopt, and/or transform the outlooks and paradigms that come to it by ways of diverse forms of socialization" (Barvosa-Carter, 8). Ami Harbin (2012, 265) argues that "disorientation can allow for shifts in attention that cultivate morally productive reflection." Harbin's account of disorientation closely mirrors Hegel's logic with respect to the individual's progress into civil society. She writes: "Disorientation can spur new ways of depending on others and more awareness of our relationality" (271).

These sorts of argument about epistemic privilege and advantage are echoed within a disability context by Steven Smith, who notes that what we learn from reflecting on experiences, especially surprising ones, including pain and suffering, contributes to "an enriched life" by contributing to human agency and, furthermore, that the self is created through this kind of "active engagement with life" (Smith 2009, 26-27). Indeed, a common argument in disability studies addresses the myth that we are able to be completely self-sufficient and independent, which contributes to a stigmatization of dependency and the need for help. 15 The degree to which we are dependent on others is often obscured in the service of those whose bodies and minds fit the norm. As Tobin Siebers (2008, 21) argues, "identities in conflict with society … have the ability to expose its norms." Consequently, disabled people are able to challenge what Siebers calls the "ideology of ability" (7-11). Jackie Leach Scully explores a similar point when she argues that "the challenge of unusual embodiment is that it poses unexpectedly hard questions of justification to the normative ethical reflections that are performed from a nondisabled perspective (that is, most normative ethics)" (Scully 2008, 9). Disability, she notes, can be a source of knowledge. As she also notes, "[T]the idea that social position has an influence on the way a person perceives and describes events is hardly new." She points out, however, that a "less familiar idea … is that the biophysical, as well as social, nature of a person's bodied presence in the world has some influence on moral perception and interpretation" (Scully 2009, 69). Disability theory and feminist theory, in other words, echo the importance of valuing contingencies that are often disruptive to existing norms.

Affirming Disability

What these feminist and disability studies writers have in common is the argument according to which we should be open to contingency and what it has to teach us, rather than try to foreclose on it. Hegel can be read as congenial to this position, for his account of the dialectical development of our consciousness and ethical awareness offers models of reading disability into his philosophy as a valuable source of knowledge. Hegel's philosophy valorizes instances of questioning and challenging norms, most especially when the norms serve to further reveal our interdependency, a central tenet of his philosophical system. This reading of Hegel makes disability part of the concept of humanity, as well as an important aspect of the continued development of this concept and, hence, the progression to greater truth. Although Hegel did not, of course, have Disability Studies in mind, if we read him in the way in which I have suggested that he can be read, we can understand the insights of Disability Studies and the disability rights movement as part of the ongoing development of the concept of humanity. With respect to feminist philosophy, Pulkinnen suggests that "Hegel could inspire feminist thought more toward change and an open future, instead of maintaining the aspiration of revealing the human condition" (Pulkinnen, in Bauer, Hutchings, Pulkinnen, and Stone 2010, 250). If we take Pulkinnen's suggestion seriously, then there is enough scope in which bring together feminist philosophy and disability theory.

Opening up Hegel's philosophy by exploring the often hidden roles of contingency and difference within it offers useful resources for disability theory. As Mairian Corker and Tom Shakespeare write, "we will need all the conceptual tools we can get" (Corker and Shakespeare 2002, 15). Extending Hegel's philosophy also reveals disability as an important, though hidden, category in the history of philosophy as a whole. This extension can enable us to explore alternative interpretations and possibilities embedded within the history of the tradition of Western philosophy, allowing us to draw from the tradition, rather than feel constrained by it. Charlotte Witt points out that it is valuable to find feminist antecedents in the history of philosophy because doing so confirms the rootedness of feminist concerns within the tradition; so too, I maintain, will it be valuable to find antecedents in the history of philosophy for disability theory. In this way, the tradition of Western philosophy can become an ally to disability scholars, rather than solely a burden. By bringing the analysis of contingency and the positive role of non-conforming bodies embedded within Hegel's philosophy to feminist philosophy of disability, we begin to solidify the groundwork for this alliance within philosophy more broadly. Many feminist philosophers have worked hard to reinterpret and reappropriate the canon, to open it up. They argue that, troubled as it is, we do not need to throw away the history of philosophy. In keeping with Hegel, these feminist philosophers attempt to discern what is essential within a philosopher's work, knowing that what is vital to such work might not be obvious and might be subject to ongoing development as our own thinking progresses. As we decide what we want to learn from our history, the insights of disability theory and consideration of the meaning of disability are important for unveiling, challenging, and overcoming the ableism both of our philosophical tradition and of our contemporary theory.


  • Alanen, Lilli, and Charlotte Witt. 2004. Feminist Reflections on the History of Philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Alcoff, Linda Martín. 2006. Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Barvosa-Carter, Edwina. 2007. "Mestiza Autonomy as Relational Autonomy: Ambivalence and the Social Character of Free Will." Journal of Political Philosophy. 15 (1):1-21.
  • Bauer, Nancy, Kimberly Hutchings, Tuija Pulkinnen, and Alison Stone. 2010. "Debating Hegel's Legacy for Contemporary Feminist Politics." In Hegel's Philosophy and Feminist Thought: Beyond Antigone?, edited by Kimberley Hutchings and Tuija Pulkinnen, 233-252. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Benhabib, Seyla. 1996. "On Hegel, Women, and Irony." In Feminist Interpretations of G.W.F. Hegel, edited by Patricia Jagentowicz Mills, 25-43. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Bérubé, Michael. 1998. "Foreword: Pressing the Claim." In Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity by Simi Linton, vii-xii. New York: New York University Press.
  • Carlson, Licia. 2010. The Faces of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Corker, Mairian, and Tom Shakespeare. 2002. "Mapping the Terrain." In Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Disability Theory, edited by Corker and Shakespeare, 1-17. London: Continuum.
  • Davis, Lennard. 2002. Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions. New York: New York University Press.
  • Franco, Paul. 1999. Hegel's Philosophy of Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 1997. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • ———. 2011. "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory." In Feminist Disability Studies, edited by Kim Q. Hall, 13-47. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Harbin, Ami. 2012. "Bodily Disorientation and Moral Change." Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 27 (2):261-280.
  • Hegel, G.W.F. 1970. Hegel's Philosophy of Nature, Part Two of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830). Translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • ———. 1974. Vorlesungen über Rechtsphilosophie 1818-1831, vol. 4. Edited by Karl-Heinz Ilting. Stuttgart-Bad Canstatt: Frommann-Holzboog.
  • ———. (1807) 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • ———. (1821) 1991a. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Translated by H.B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • ———. (1830) 1991b. The Encyclopaedia Logic: Part I of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences with the Zusätze. Translated by T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, and H.S. Harris. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
  • ———. (1816) 1989. Science of Logic. Translated by A.V. Miller. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International.
  • ———. (1830) 2007. Philosophy of Mind (Part III of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences). Translated by W. Wallace and A.V. Miller, revised by Michael Inwood. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hutchings, Kimberly, and Tuija Pulkinnen, eds. 2010. Hegel's Philosophy and Feminist Thought: Beyond Antigone? New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Inwood, Michael. 1992. "Necessity, possibility and contingency." In A Hegel Dictionary. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.
  • Kleege, Georgina. 2010. "Blindness and Visual Culture: An Eye-Witness Account." In The Disability Studies Reader, 3rd ed., edited by Lennard J. Davis, 522-530. New York and London: Routledge.
  • Linton, Simi. 1998. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press.
  • Maker, William. 2007. "Identity, Difference, and the Logic of Otherness." In Identity and Difference: Studies in Hegel's Logic, Philosophy of Spirit, and Politics, edited by Philip T. Grier, 15-30. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Mills, Patricia Jagentowicz, ed. 1996. Feminist Interpretations of G.W.F. Hegel. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Overboe, James. 1999. "'Difference in Itself': Validating Disabled People's Lived Experiences." Body and Society. 5 (4):17-29.
  • Patten, Alan. 1999. Hegel's Idea of Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Pulkinnen, Tuija. 2010. "Differing Spirits—Reflections on Hegelian Inspiration in Feminist Theory." In Hegel's Philosophy and Feminist Thought: Beyond Antigone?, edited by Kimberley Hutchings and Tuija Pulkinnen, 19-37. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Ravven, Heidi M. 1996. "Has Hegel Anything to Say to Feminists?" In Feminist Interpretations of G.W.F. Hegel, edited by Patricia Jagentowicz Mills, 225-252. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Scully, Jackie Leach. 2008. Disability Bioethics: Moral Bodies, Moral Difference. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • ———. 2009. "Disability and the Thinking Body." In Arguing About Disability: Philosophical Perspectives, edited by Kristjana Kristiansen, Simo Vehmas, and Tom Shakespeare, 57-73. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Siebers, Tobin. 2008. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Silvers, Anita. 1998. "Formal Justice." In Disability, Difference, Discrimination: Perspectives on Justice in Bioethics and Public Policy by Anita Silvers, David Wasserman, and Mary B. Mahowald, 13-145. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Smith, Steven R. 2009. "Social Justice and Disability: Competing Interpretations of the Medical and Social Models." In Arguing about Disability: Philosophical Perspectives, edited by Kristjana Kristiansen, Simo Vehmas, and Tom Shakespeare, 15-29. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Stone, Alison. 2005. Petrified Intelligence: Nature in Hegel's Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • ———. 2010. "Matter and Form: Hegel, Organicism, and the Difference Between Women and Men." In Hegel's Philosophy and Feminist Thought: Beyond Antigone?, edited by Kimberley Hutchings and Tuija Pulkinnen, 211-232. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Titchkosky, Tanya. 2001. "Disability: A Rose by Any Other Name? 'People-First' Language in Canadian Society." Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 38 (2):125-140.
  • Wallace, Robert M. 2005. Hegel's Theory of Reality, Freedom, and God. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wendell, Susan. 1996. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York and London: Routledge.
  • Williams, Robert R. 1997. Hegel's Ethics of Recognition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Witt, Charlotte. 2004. "Feminist History of Philosophy." In Feminist Reflections on the History of Philosophy, edited by Lilli Alanen and Charlotte Witt, 1-16. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Wood, Allen W. 1990. Hegel's Ethical Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jane Dryden is an associate professor of philosophy at Mount Allison University, where she teaches courses on Kant, German idealism, feminist philosophy, aesthetics, and biomedical ethics. She is currently working on a monograph that draws from both German idealism (primarily Fichte and Hegel) and disability theory in an investigation of the relationship between autonomy and vulnerability.


  1. Aristotle condoned infanticide by exposure for babies with birth defects (Politics 1335b20) and Plato seems to endorse this for certain regimes (Republic 460c). Licia Carlson (2010, 106) provides a brief list of the instances of intellectual disability in the history of philosophy. Georgina Kleege (2010) analyses the use of the "Hypothetical Blind Man" in early modern philosophy.
    Return to Text
  2. Anita Silvers, one of the growing number of philosophers working on disability, bluntly asks "Why do we think disability must be bad?" (Silvers 1998, 86). Rosemarie Garland-Thomson invites us to perceive disabled bodies "as extraordinary rather than abnormal" (Garland-Thomson 1997, 137). Compare also Siebers (2008, 3-6).
    Return to Text
  3. In addition to general anthologies like Feminist Reflections on the History of Philosophy (Alanen and Witt 2004), the Re-reading the Canon series edited by Nancy Tuana has produced anthologies focusing on most canonical philosophers from Plato up to the 20th century.
    Return to Text
  4. For example, Allen Wood (1990, 26) and Paul Franco (1999, 236, 246).
    Return to Text
  5. Robert Williams makes the fullest case for understanding Hegel's view of recognition as not solely being about "overcoming" the other (1997).
    Return to Text
  6. For example, Alan Patten (1999) frames his account of Hegel's social theory in order to examine objections to the criticism that Hegel's conception of ethical life is "unacceptably conservative" (3) but his only acknowledgement of Hegel's treatment of women or the inegalitarian nature of the family is in a footnote stating that he will use masculine pronouns throughout in order not to "misleadingly create the impression that Hegel held more enlightened views about women than he actually did" (2 n.3).
    Return to Text
  7. My translation. Original: "Aber der häßlichste Mensch, der Verbrecher ist immer doch Mensch. Ein Kranker, Krüppel ist immer ein noch lebender Mensch…".
    Return to Text
  8. Plato's Republic famously equates health and justice (444c1-d5), and, in the Medieval period, John of Salisbury's Policraticus V.2 and VI.20 develops the political state-as-body metaphor.
    Return to Text
  9. Further examples are §24A, 60; §173A; and §213A.
    Return to Text
  10. For a good overview of how this works in Hegel's logic, see Maker (2007, 15-30).
    Return to Text
  11. I capitalize this technical use of "Idea" in order to differentiate it from "idea" meant in a more general sense.
    Return to Text
  12. Hegel's philosophy resembles many of the aspects that Corker and Shakespeare (2002) attribute to postmodernism and post-structural theory, with the obvious exceptions of Hegel's use of meta-narrative and assumptions about progress.
    Return to Text
  13. Compare also Hegel 1989, 83 and 129.
    Return to Text
  14. Ravven (1996, 241-242) points out, however, that we can productively derive from Hegel's account a critique of the limits of the family alongside lessons about what models of community would best promote human development.
    Return to Text
  15. Examples include Linton (1998, 45-51) and Davis (2002, 119-144).
    Return to Text
Return to Top of Page