Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Complicating, Not Explicating: Taking Up Philosophy in Learning Disability Research

Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Complicating, Not Explicating: Taking Up Philosophy in Learning Disability Research

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article provides an introduction to theoretical ideas and practices from the so-called "philosophers of difference"--Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari--as an invitation to think differently about the construction of learning disability and to envision new forms of learning. Two key concepts, Foucault's transgression and Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome, are presented, and examples from research on learning disability and other dimensions of disability are given to illustrate their potential. The theoretical practices of deconstruction, developed by Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomatic analysis are also presented and exemplified. The article argues that these theoretical concepts and practices, if taken up, shift the researcher towards an ethics of research and toward greater responsibility. Implications are discussed in the final part of the paper.


This paper proposes new forms of engagement with theory in research on learning disability, providing the prospect of "thinking otherwise" (Bail, 1994, p. 23) and enabling us as academics to meet more effectively our responsibilities towards students identified as having learning disabilities. In advocating for a more extensive engagement with theory, I am suggesting some particular associations, most notably with a group of French philosophers known as the "philosophers of difference." Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, and Foucault have been portrayed as philosophers of difference because of their concern with achieving recognition of minority social groups and because they all, in differing ways, attempt to formulate a politics of difference based on an acceptance of multiplicity (Patton, 2000).

These writers have in common an orientation to philosophy as a political act and a will to make use of philosophical concepts as a form, not of global revolutionary change, but of "active experimentation, since we do not know in advance which way a line is going to turn" (Deleuze & Parnet, 1987, p. 137). Their work is a philosophy of affirmation, which is a "belief of the future, in the future" (Deleuze, quoted in Rajchman, 2001, p. 76). It does not offer solutions, but produces new concepts, "provocation" (Bains, 2002), and new imaginings, "knocking down partitions, co-extensive with the world" (Deleuze, 1994, p. 22).

The ideas of the philosophers of difference are made to work in a practical sense in two ways. First, the ideas themselves are used to provoke a different kind of sense-making within the field of learning disability. It is not easy to see, think, and act differently; it is necessary, therefore, to also use some of the theory practices of the philosophers of difference to help achieve a new orientation to research methodology (Allan, 2008). A brief "taste" of two key ideas of the philosophers of difference--transgression and the rhizome--is provided below, together with some examples of how they have been used to reflect upon current ways of thinking about and discussing people with learning disabilities and to "relocate them in new words and worlds" (Granger, 2010). Two major theory practices that could be taken up in research within the field of learning disabilities--deconstruction and rhizomic analysis--are also outlined and exemplified.

The examples are drawn from the US, the UK, and Australia and relate to learning disability and other dimensions of disability. In the UK and Australia, learning disability (or intellectual disability) has a different provenance and politics from that in the US (Sleeter, 1987) and is deployed across a greater proportion of the student population. It is hoped that in spite of these differences, the examples will illustrate the powerful capacity of these philosophical theories to inspire new thought. Utilization of these concepts and practices takes the researcher into a new kind of engagement within the field of learning disability that, drawing again on the philosophers of difference and on Levinas (1969), can best be described as an ethics. …

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