In Memoriam: Anita Silvers, Ph.D.


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by Leslie Francis, Ph.D., JD

Dr. Anita Silvers, 1940-2019, died on March 14, 2019, aged 78. She is survived by her brother, Dr. David Silvers, his family, and many friends, collaborators, colleagues, students, and others whose lives she touched and inspired.

Anita Silvers shaped the field of philosophy substantively, institutionally, and ethically. She received her B.A. in philosophy from Sarah Lawrence College in 1962 and her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1967; in addition, she studied at London University in 1965. Upon completing her Ph.D., she was advised by her mentors that it would be prudent to apply for positions in philosophy where in-person interviews were not standard, because of her visible disabilities from childhood polio. So she accepted an offer to join the faculty at San Francisco State University in 1967, where she built a highly distinguished career as Professor for over 50 years and Department Chair for 15 of those years. Dr. Silvers also served San Francisco State University as Special Assistant for University Strategic Planning in 1995-96, Special Assistant for Affirmative Action and Disability Programs in 1994-1995, and Chair of the Academic Senate in 1986-1988. She was named SFSU Faculty Member of the Year by the Golden Key Honor Society in 1994 and received SFSU’s Distinguished Faculty Service Award, in 2013. In 1978, she was named the California Distinguished Humanist by the California Council for the Humanities. Among her 10 books and over a hundred articles were seminal works in aesthetics, bioethics, justice, and philosophy and disability.

Image linked from SFSU

Silvers’ early philosophical writing was in aesthetics. At the time, the field was locked into the analytic tradition, attending to questions such as whether there are necessary or sufficient conditions for an object to count as a work of art. Silvers demonstrated to the contrary that this analytic program failed crucially to engage with the world of art as actually practiced. She co-authored Puzzles About Art (with Margaret Battin, John Fisher, and Ron Moore, St. Martin’s Press, 1989), a volume that gave generations of students materials to challenge fundamental assumptions about art and its making. Silvers also deployed her world-centered approach to aesthetics to literature and critical thinking more generally, writing about the role of art in education and philosophy in schools. These path-breaking efforts led to her appointment in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council for the Humanities, the governing board of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

By the early 1990s, Silvers turned her acute philosophical eye to bioethics and disability. Drawing on her insights about art, she criticized the role played by judgments about “the normal” in assessments of the capacities of persons as agents, or judgments about the effective deployment of health care. In Disability, Difference, Discrimination: Perspectives on Justice in Bioethics and Public Policy (with David Wasserman and Mary B. Mahowald, Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), Silvers argued that equality for people with disabilities, like equality for others, means seeing them as competent contributors to cooperative social practices rather than as persons in need of welfare. This understanding of equality, Silvers contended, provides the theoretical foundation for disability rights as civil rights. Such civil rights are not special privileges; they are accommodations for difference that enable persons with disabilities to work, engage socially, or function successfully in multiple aspects of life, just as others with different bodies or minds are able to do. Such accommodations must open doors in ways that provide meaningful access for people to function rather than becoming mere empty promises. With Leslie Francis, Silvers edited a volume celebrating the first ten years of the civil rights accomplishments of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities: Exploring Implications of the Law for Individuals and Institutions, Routledge, 2000) and authored many articles on disability civil rights in health care, reproduction, employment, and public accommodations. Silvers also edited field-defining volumes on justice in health care such as Medicine and Social Justice: Essays on the Distribution of Health Care(with Margaret Battin and Rosamond Rhodes, Oxford University Press, 2002), The Blackwell Guide to Medical Ethics(with Rosamond Rhodes and Leslie Francis, Blackwell Publishing, 2007), and Medicine and Social Justice: Essays on the Distribution of Health Care, 2nd edition(with Rosamond Rhodes and Margaret Battin, Oxford University Press, 2012). Dr. Silvers’ wide variety of scholarly contributions were recognized by her selection as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in New Zealand in 2005, and as the 2013 winner (with Eva Kittay) of the Lebowitz Prize for Philosophical Achievement and Contribution by Phi Beta Kappa and the APA.

In her extensive writing in bioethics, Dr. Silvers was especially concerned to address disability discrimination in health care. Drawing on her own experiences as a partial quadriplegic, she sought tirelessly to point out how thinking about disability goes wrong in health care by locating problems in bodily differences rather than features of the world such as the design of warning systems that fail to communicate successfully with people with sensory disabilities. With Leslie Francis, she developed a series of ethical and legal challenges to restrictions on health care funding that denied meaningful access to people with disabilities. She argued for critical distinctions between disability discrimination and the imposition of misplaced paternalistic judgments or values held by others such as the determination that life should be preserved at all costs. To illustrate, in her recent testimony before the National Academy of Medicine in their workshop on physician-assisted death, she powerfully argued against the requirement that persons seeking physician-assisted death must administer the doses to themselves. Such misplaced protectionism, she contended, de-prioritized the choices of people themselves and risked subjecting them to greater harm. She sought to implement these insights in her long years of service on the ethics committee at San Francisco General Hospital, and in the many classes on bioethics that she taught at San Francisco State.

Dr. Silvers was a mainstay of the American Philosophical Association, contributing to its development as an institution and its efforts to enhance inclusion. From 1982-2008, she served as Secretary-Treasurer of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association, the primary organizational office of the Division. She also served as Executive Secretary of the Council for Philosophical Studies from 1978 to 1982. With Eva Feder Kittay, she directed an NEH summer seminar, “Justice, Equality, and the Challenge of Disability,” in 2002.

In 2009 she became the only recipient from a non-research-intensive university to be awarded the Quinn Prize for Contributions to Philosophy by the APA. She chaired the APA Committee on Inclusiveness in the Profession from 2010-2013 and continued until her death to support efforts to enhance inclusion in the profession such as the Rock Institute Inclusive Key Summer Institute for philosophy undergraduates from underrepresented groups.

Silvers also became a well-known and highly effective advocate for disability rights. She worked tirelessly to make access and disability services available on California college campuses. She worked on IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that led to the Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) for children with disabilities, age 2 to 21. She contributed her expertise to the development of the Graduate Program in Physical Therapy jointly offered by SF State and UCSF. For these and many other contributions, Silvers received the inaugural California Faculty Association Human Rights Award in 1989 and the Wang Family Excellence Award for extraordinary achievements in the California State University system in 2017.

On hearing of her death, Silvers’ friends and colleagues have described her many facets: “our buddy,” “a force of nature at San Francisco State,” “a powerhouse scholar and administrator,” “an institution in philosophy,” and “my philosophy hero.” She will be greatly missed but her indefatigable efforts on behalf of philosophy and the civil rights of people with disabilities will live on.

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