How valuable can people with mental disabilities be to others? In this article I present ethnographic material on L’Arche, a Christian charity that provides care. I describe how carers there are trained to see cognitive disability as producing not simply an absence of rational agency, but also the presence of a quite different way of actively inhabiting the world. I argue that, by learning to recognize and value this unusual kind of agency, carers in L’Arche subvert the terms of a recent philosophical debate about the worth of people with cognitive disabilities. They demonstrate that people can value others not just as rational moral subjects, or simply as passive objects of care, but also as charismatic and intuitive agents who actively depart from standard norms of personhood.
Recognizing Agency in the Limits of the Rational Subject
For an Anthropology of Cognitive Disability
Patrick McKearney and Tyler Zoanni
How can we study significant cognitive differences within social groups anthropologically? Attempting to do so challenges some of the discipline’s most cherished methodological, analytical and ethical commitments, raising questions about how we understand difference, both between and within societies. Such challenges both explain the neglect of the topic up until now and suggest its scholarly potential. In this article, we move to lay the groundwork for an anthropology that takes seriously cognitive differences (such as autism, dementia and intellectual disability), as well as their potentially disabling consequences. We ask: what kind of cross-cultural reality does cognitive variation have, and how problematic are such differences for those who live with them? We spell out at greater length some of the difficulties involved in developing this conversation, attempt to address these issues, and delineate some of the important benefits that follow from doing so.