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The Philosophy of AutismReview - The Philosophy of Autism
by Jami L. Anderson & Simon Cushing
Rowman & Littlefield, 2012
Review by R.A. Goodrich, Ph.D.
Oct 1st 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 40)

Having parented an autistic son, the editors of The Philosophy of Autism, Jami Anderson and Simon Cushing, were struck by the sheer paucity of philosophical enquiry into autism.  Indeed, they find the topic "rich with philosophical possibilities" and favour an analytical approach aimed at "clarity and argumentative rigor" (rather than what they regard as "unreadable" "continental" philosophy) (3).  Furthermore, they equally wish to make their anthology responsive to "issues of immediate concern to people's real lives" (3).  Hence, room is made for first-person contributions extolling neuro-diversity by those with direct experience of the autistic spectrum. Both personal and philosophical contributions are thematically bound in the main by the task of challenging the popularised belief that autistic individuals can at least be readily recognised by their debilitating lack of empathy.  

Nine North American contributors, almost all of whom are academic philosophers, provide eight chapters which range from three noticeably personal accounts and advocacy to conventionally formal argument in the remaining five chapters.  This brief review will begin by outlining the anthology's initial framework with its emphasis upon conceptual analysis. From the outset, it quickly becomes apparent that one theorist above all dominates the attention of The Philosophy of Autism: English psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen figures as a subject in five of the eight chapters.  With the foregoing in mind, this critique will then summarise something of the unease Baron-Cohen and his characterisation of autism provokes amongst so many contributors.  Limits upon length mean that we shall by-pass other scholars of note.  For example, there is, albeit less obviously, the countervailing influence and contentions of psychologist Morton Ann Gernsbacher and colleagues which are traceable in at least three chapters.  In her cited co-authored 2005 article, but perhaps more pertinently in her co-authored 2008 chapter, "Learning in Autism" (in Cognitive Psychology of Memory edited by H.L. Roediger), Gernsbacher succinctly outlines methodological, linguistic, and paedological alternatives to those promulgated by Baron-Cohen and his supporters.  That said, we shall end by sketching some limitations of this anthology, including two areas some readers may regard as relatively neglected by this engaged and articulate volume: the unexamined nature of psychological theory and of analytical philosophy.  


The introduction by Anderson and Cushing, at first colloquially pitched, swiftly turns to the crucial questions facing conceptual analysis. First of all, what is autism and what does the concept include especially at a time when the very term is "exploding into use by the general public" (3)?  Secondly, how is autism identified and "what are the signs that justify [its] diagnosis" (4)?  What, therefore, are the implications of construing autism as a syndrome, a disorder, or a condition, let alone as a spectrum of the latter two?  Moreover, if there are no necessary and sufficient behavioural criteria for diagnosing autism, or its sub-classes such as Kanner's and Asperger's syndromes, is autism merely a blanket term which "might meet the fate of...'neurotic'...a pseudo-scientific term for an inexact clumping together of unrelated phenomena" (5)?  Finally, if, from a clinical perspective, autism is not capable of therapeutic cure, does this not only imply that the condition "is not simply the symptoms," but that it also calls into question clinical tests for diagnosing the condition "simply from the symptoms" (6)?   

The first chapter by Cushing is underpinned by the above set of questions whilst reviewing the diagnostic criteria listed by Leo Kanner in his 1943 paper, "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact" and by the 1994 fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders under the aegis of Allen Frances, both of which have materially shaped seven decades of Anglophone research and practice to date. When turning his attention to major psychological theories, Cushing touches upon "the most influential version" of "impaired theory of mind" attributed to autistic children, that of Baron-Cohen's mind-blindness, which Cushing believes ultimately "fails to account for what are deemed essential elements" of autism (28).  Indeed, he continues, Baron-Cohen himself acknowledges the inadequacy of the theory and nowadays believes that it acts as one constituent of "a complete theory" (28), the other components being the lack of "empathizing"--"of which mindreading is the 'cognitive' aspect"--and excessive "systemizing"--"the drive to analyse or construct systems" (33).  Cushing concludes that Baron-Cohen's theory illustrates "an extreme example" of "hypothesis-driven" research that avoids confronting evidence which threatens to falsify or "undermine the hypothesis," namely, evidence which fails to demonstrate

that there is a uniquely identifiable autistic brain that explains and unifies the disparate elements of autism, thereby justifying the label of autism as a natural kind of phenomenon (34).

Collectively, The Philosophy of Autism is concerned to dismantle Baron-Cohen at every turn.  Amongst the key strategies deployed against Baron-Cohen are the following: 

(a) shifting the focus from a reductive neurological or cortical conception of mind towards an emergent interactional notion of mind "at the intersection of brain, body, and world" (58);

(b) taking account of the testimony of autistic individuals--be it an Amanda Baggs, a Dawn Prince-Hughes, or a Nick Pentzell (54ff. & 104ff.)--who depict their learning by way of restricted repetitive behaviour in order to accommodate their amplified and fragmented sensory sensitivities (cf. 147, 153 & 179) (or, as Ian Hacking, in his 2009 discussion, "Autistic Autobiography," expresses it, learning "to read these texts not as describing well-defined experience, but as creating express experiences" (1472));

(c) highlighting not only the inadequacy of the actual sampling of children in tests for false beliefs of inanimate others aimed at bolstering the depiction of autistic children as lacking empathy for others, but also acknowledging the sheer syntactic or clausal complexity of the "wh" questions posed by experimenters (105; cf. 148-151) and thereby claiming that syntactic development precedes cognitive development;

(d) identifying the lack of evidence for and hence non sequiturs in the deductively constructed claims of the "common cause" argument which causally connects in utero differences between the male and the female foetus with the subsequent diagnosis of autism overwhelmingly amongst males (especially given the hormonal role of foetal testosterone) (86ff.); and

(e) emphasizing the ethical consequences of regarding autistic individuals as condemned to "impaired social interaction" (80) or to "social cognition deficits" (178) (which, although raised by over half the chapters, none appearing to wrestle directly with the difficult normative concepts of justice and equality (where the principle of treating like cases alike and unlike cases differentially underpins Aristoteles' discussion of "equality...for equals.  And inequality...for unequals" in, say, the Politikon III.ix.1280a8ff.)).  


At this juncture, let us sketch some reservations about this thought-provoking anthology. Its collective efforts listed above at countering Baron-Cohen--even when most deftly demonstrated in the third chapter by Ruth Sample (73-101)--run the risk of promulgating a negative thesis.  Denying the veracity of Baron-Cohen's tripartite theory in whole or in part does not logically imply the truth of alternatives such as theories of central coherence or of executive dysfunction (28-30, 60-62, 75-76).  Nor is there any concerted attempt to engage more recent developmental evaluations of such theories in combination by, for instance, Elizabeth Pellicano. 

Might this state of affairs relate to the targeted readership of The Philosophy of Autism?  Whether theorists or practitioners, activists or parents, is there sufficient allowance made for the "uninitiated," for those not "trained in philosophy" (3)?  Certainly, contributors do attempt to gloss their more technical points--ranging from the cerebral "module" labelled "theory of mind" (7) to the interactional stance called "abstract allocentrism" (182-183).  However, what is to be understood by passing references, for example, to "Humean sympathy" (144), let alone its bearing upon or difference from the anthology's central pre-occupation with empathy?  Again, what is to be understood by "Kantian deontology" (144), let alone its contestable variants in terms of the rights and duties of human agents?

Next, in what comprises the first philosophical anthology solely devoted to autism, some readers might look for a more explicit discussion of psychological theory since, as already mentioned, five of the eight chapters overtly confront theories propounded by Baron-Cohen.  Take, for example, his earlier theory of mind-blindness said to be a defining characteristic of autistic impairment on the basis of false belief tests.  What makes the theory of mind-blindness a theory?  Anderson and Cushing, for instance, acknowledge "prediction" on the grounds of what Baron-Cohen believes "to be true about the brain" (7), tests for which purportedly reveal "a specific deficit" that has "the potential to explain" such factors as "lack of pretend play and social impairment" (8).  In brief, psychological theory centres upon prediction and explanation.  Ruth Sample, by contrast, concentrates upon Baron-Cohen's later neuro-developmental theory that autism results from sexual cortical differences (the so-called "extreme male brain") and upon its failure to act as a coherent and evidenced explanation.  During the course of so doing, Sample questions claims about foetal testosterone being causally relevant to the autistic spectrum; at best, they remain speculative.  Alternatively expressed, theory not only involves valid standards of explanation but also differs from mere speculation. In practice, a close reading of these contributors also reveals their common demand that a psychological theory should provide conceptual definitions (e.g. 4ff., 18-20 & 75ff.); that its counterfactual propositions ("if...then...") should lead us towards nomological (or law-like) principles (cf. 81, 88 & 93); and that its inferences should be tightly integrated such that fewer generalisations are made to account for more facts (unlike a behavioural "cluster" of statements which diagnostically "gains in flexibility" yet "loses in specificity" (22)) .

More pointedly, other readers may wonder whether a more critical rationale is warranted by an anthology espousing the necessity of conceptual analysis in terms of clarity, rigour, and readability (3).  By applying conceptual analysis to autism, is one only breaking the concept of autism into its simpler or more basic parts so that its logical character or structure is revealed as Simon Cushing, for example, does?  Or is conceptual analysis, to adapt Jeremy Bentham's view of "paraphrasis" in his 1814 "Essay on Logic," to be construed as a process of translating or interpreting assertions made about autism into an appropriate logical form before its character or structure can be depicted as Ruth Sample's handling of the "common cause" argument displays (86-87)?  Or again, is it, to follow an earlier precedent set by Eukleides of Alexandreia in his Elements (Stoikheion), a process of reversal or a "backwards solution" ("anapalin lysin") where one begins with the concept under examination and, by investigating its antecedents, aims to identify the first or basic principles at work?  Neglecting this third--yet complementary--mode of conceptual analysis results in two possibilities a further or enlarged edition of this anthology may wish to address.  Firstly, is there a place for an analytical philosophy of autism to engage in the history of its conception (in both senses of the word) and in the work of earlier generations of scholars whose debates are unwittingly recapitulated as if present-day enquiries were de novo?  Secondly, by arguing on the basis of its "disjunctive" or its clustered features (80 & 20ff.) that autism as characterised by the DSM-IV lacks definition and hence may be little more than an expedient if not passing "social construct" (24), has an alternative response been ignored?  To declare that autism is not definable is not necessarily to say that we cannot know what it is like or that we cannot say anything about it.  Perhaps such a declaration also tells us that autism is not reducible to anything else.



© 2013 R.A. Goodrich


R.A. Goodrich teaches in the School of Communication & Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, co-edits the online refereed arts-practice journal, Double Dialogues, and co-ordinates with Maryrose Hall a longitudinal project investigating behavioural, cognitive, and linguistic aspects of higher-functioning children within the autistic spectrum of disorders.


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