This study will discuss 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 blind academics and their sighted allies, some activists and some not. Despite the continuation of this second problematic, blind persons made substantial progress in the molding of 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, seeing 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 un-Lock(e) 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.
We shall examine three significant questions that Enlightenment thinkers posed about the blind. Thinkers in later centuries continued to ponder these questions, which still occupy thinkers today. The first question is: What is the capacity of a blind person to function in civil society? That question can also be stated: Can a blind person be enlightened? The pun is perhaps ineluctable, and this word play is implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the analysis that follows. Can the blind be taught to negotiate and participate in the world of the sighted? From the writings of Locke and his contemporaries and from later writings of Diderot and others, we will discover that several Enlightenment thinkers at least entertained the possibility of enlightenment for the sightless, but that they were not in agreement about the likelihood of achieving it.
The second question is: What is it like to be blind? What is the nature of blind experience? Is the lived experience of a blind person different from that of a sighted person? We shall explore the narratives of many blind thought leaders, including the remarkable Helen Keller, to determine how this question, and the answers to it, changed over time. The third question is: What rights should the blind have in society? The Enlightenment project was especially concerned with rights, although at the time that concern dealt with free, European males, who owned property and who were, in most cases, physically typical.