Professor Gail Weiss (George Washington University): "The 'Normal Abnormalities' of Disability and Aging"; 7.1.2009, Helsinki

Professor Gail Weiss (George Washington University) will give a public lecture, "The 'Normal Abnormalities' of Disability and Aging", at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies on Wednesday the 7th of January 2009, at 3-5pm. Street address: Fabianinkatu 24, 1st floor

Free admission. Welcome!

Gail Weiss is professor of philosophy and director of the Human Sciences Ph.D. Program at George Washington University, USA. She works in the fields of phenomenology and existentialism, and her expertise is in the areas of embodiment, gender, personal identity and variation. Weiss takes actively part in the research co-operation between USA and Europe, operating in the International Merleau-Ponty Circle and in two networks of feminist phenomenology, SIFP and the European Network for Feminist Phenomenology. Her last publication, the monograph, "Refiguring the Ordinary" (Indiana University Press 2008), studies the practical foundation of experience. In her prior study, "Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality" (Routledge 1999), Weiss developed a new interpretation of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of embodiment. She has also edited a collection of feminist readings of Merleau-Ponty, "Feminist Interpretations of Maurice Merleau-Ponty" (Pennsylvania State University Press 2006), and a collection on the limits of the human embodiment, "Thinking the Limits of the Body" (SUNY Press 2003).

"The 'Normal Abnormalities' of Disability and Aging: Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir"

Gail Weiss


"What is so disconcerting about old age," Beauvoir maintains in The Coming of Age, "is that normally it is an abnormal condition." (Beauvoir 1996: 285) What renders the normal process of aging "an abnormal condition," for Beauvoir, is due not to what are often dramatic individual differences in the experience of aging but rather to societal prejudices against the elderly who "are looked upon as an inferior species." (Beauvoir 1996: 286). While each of us encounters elderly people throughout our lives, and while most of us will take our own place within the ranks of the aged after we cross the (historically shifting) threshold that constitutes us as old within our society, Beauvoir's insight that the elderly tend to be culturally stigmatized and socially marginalized throughout history presents us with a phenomenological anomaly, namely a normal experience that presents itself as abnormal, that demands further scrutiny. Since, as Beauvoir is quick to point out, old age and disability are often viewed as synonymous despite the fact that neither phenomenon necessarily entails the other, it should not be surprising if an analysis of Merleau-Ponty's views regarding the "normal abnormalities" of particular disabled patients can illuminate some of the possibilities and pitfalls that arise out of the "normal abnormalities" of the aging process.  By exploring the "normal abnormalities" of disability and aging, I argue, we can pose important challenges to the very notion of normalcy insofar as it excludes the common daily experiences of so many elderly and disabled people in the world today.