An Intellectual History of Blindness
The Enlightenment to the Present
By Frank Wyman
Routledge – 2012 – 168 pages
This volume studies two related problematics. First, Enlightenment ideas about human difference in general and blindness in particular were often at war with one another. Second, conflicts concerning Enlightenment thought continued in the lives and writings of many important blind thinkers, from Helen Keller in the late nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century, to present-day academics who are blind and their sighted allies, some activists and some not. Despite the continuation of this second problematic, blind persons made substantial progress in directing their own narratives, individually and collectively, and in both the personal and the political arenas. Many present-day activists attempt, either explicitly or implicitly, to complete or expand the unfinished positive work of the Enlightenment, seeking to update and stretch the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen to include and to assure the rights and participation of persons with disabilities. Ironically, many modern radical disability advocates implicitly or explicitly use the discourses of the Enlightenment in their attempts to harmonize discordant aspects of the eighteenth century tradition or to challenge that century’s enduring contradictions. In attempting to unlock the ideas of various Enlightenment thinkers, blind thought leaders and their allies have made significant progress in providing greater scope, freedom and rights to the blind and in fostering understanding of what it means to be blind—an important step in combating the pervasive fear of blindness that still haunts society.
Author Frank Wyman examines three significant questions that Enlightenment thinkers posed about people who were blind: What is the capacity of a person who is blind to function in civil society? What is the nature of blind experience? What rights should people who are blind have in society? This volume explores the narratives of many blind thought leaders, including the remarkable Helen Keller, to determine how these questions, and the answers to them, changed over time.
1. Introduction: Preliminary Thoughts about Blindness from The Enlightenment to the Present 2. The Enlightenment and Blindness: Epistemology and Anxiety 3. Helen Keller: A Contradictory and Remarkable Lens and Pivot in the Intellectual History of Blindness 4. Theory and Experience of Blindness in Some Recent Memoirs 5. Disabilities Studies’ Equivocal Take on Blindness and The Enlightenment 6. Conclusion
Frank Wyman is Lecturer in the Department of Modern History and Literature at Drew University, USA.