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AFB JOURNAL OVISUAL
IMPAIRMENT& BLINDNESS
  
Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss  
 

September 2009 • Volume 103 Number 9

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Louis Braille Celebration

Braille and Revolution, Diderot and Enlightenment, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Stuart H. Wittenstein

Print edition page number(s) 516-518

The first school for students who are blind was established in Paris, France in the late 1700s. Louis Braille, who was born in 1809, became a student and teacher at the school, where he created the preeminent literacy system for blind persons. This essay seeks to identify the social, political, and philosophical circumstances that led to these events.

When Charles Dickens wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …" he was describing Europe on the verge of revolution. Many different scholars have explored the reasons for these revolutions, but most agree that they were heavily influenced by the philosophical movement known as the Age of Enlightenment, in which reason was advocated as the primary source and legitimacy for authority. This philosophy provided inspiration and motivation to the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment sought to replace ideas born of feudalism with ideas that stressed the rights of individuals to achieve their highest level of potential, or, as the Declaration of Independence put it, the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These ideas were revolutionary in the mid-1700s and threatened the authority of monarchies and the religious establishment. Because of these threats, many of the philosophers of the Enlightenment were criticized and even imprisoned for their writings. They were thought to be malcontents, atheists, and subversives.

A letter raises the status of blind people

One such philosopher was Denis Diderot, who is known to the history of education of blind persons as the author of Letter on the Blind. In fact, much of the literature on the history of the blindness field cites Diderot's 1749 letter as providing the founder of the first school for the blind, Valentin Haüy, with "the philosophical foundation for educating students who are blind" (Hatlen, 2000, p. 3). According to Mellor (2006), it was Diderot's letter, which described competent blind persons, that "emboldened him [Haüy] to dare to teach blind people to read and write" (p. 33).

Lowenfeld noted that, as the individual assumed greater importance in the writings of 18th century philosophers, this widespread recognition of the rights, values, obligations, and contributions of individuals included those of blind people, raising their status. "[Blind people] were no longer unidentified parts of a mass of beggars, but became recognized as individuals whose ambitions, aptitudes, and achievement must be considered and who have their own right to happiness and fulfillment" (Lowenfeld, 1975, p. 65).

Diderot's influential writings on blind people were part of a far broader philosophical goal (Paulsen, 1987). Diderot wanted to create a discussion of religion in terms of what our senses can tell us about the world, and, by extension, discuss the alliance of church and state, a common arrangement in Europe during this era. For Diderot, blindness was a metaphor through which he could demonstrate his philosophy. In showing that even someone without full use of his or her senses can accomplish much and achieve a level of independence beyond what society readily expects, Diderot hoped to prove that every individual is entitled to opportunities to reach his or her own true potential. It is clear from some of Diderot's writings that he struggled with ideas that were considered very dangerous at the time, including atheism, anti-monarchism, and he even "prepared the way for theory of evolution" (Jourdain, 1916, p. 1) by discussing the theory of natural selection. Elements of Letter on the Blind caused Diderot to be imprisoned and copies of the letter to be burned. Among the phrases that caused Diderot's legal problems was the quote of the blind agnostic mathematician, Nicholas Saunderson, "If you want to make me believe in God, you must make me touch Him" (Jourdain, 1916, p. 109).

Other writings attributed to Diderot make it clear that his aim was to bring about change in how the French were governed and how the church and state supported one another--often, according to Diderot, to the detriment of the populace. Rather than having the church support the status quo by supporting the divine rights of the king, Diderot believed that all people should have the right and opportunity to seek their own level of achievement. A representative selection of quotes from Diderot's writings follows:

  • The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.
  • It seems to me that if one had kept silence up to now regarding religion, people would still be submerged in the most grotesque and dangerous superstition regarding government. We would still be groaning under the bonds of feudal government.
  • No man has received from nature the right to give orders to others. Freedom is a gift from heaven, and every individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it.
  • Every man has his dignity. I'm willing to forget mine, but at my own discretion and not when someone tells me to.
  • Mankind shall not be free until the last king is strangled in the entrails of the last priest.
  • Power acquired by violence is only a usurpation, and lasts only as long as the force of him who commands prevails over that of those who obey.

The modern reader can understand that Diderot's writings would be considered shocking by many and subversive in his time. It is also clear that his aim was not to liberate or educate blind persons, but to affect broader change in his society. However, by writing Letter on the Blind in order to make his point about the dignity and potential of all humans, Diderot laid the groundwork for the establishment of the first school for blind children. It was at this school that, as a teenager, Braille developed his now famous literacy code. And it was at this school that blind students continued to use the code even when it was banned by the school. The school brought together a community of blind persons in an educational milieu, and this community assured the survival of the braille code, which may have otherwise been lost to time. Unlike previous systems of literacy created for blind persons--see, for example, Lowenfeld's (1975) writings on the "self-emancipators"--"[b]lind people would insist (often in the face of opposition from well-meaning sighted people) that braille was much more practical than any other reading and writing systems" (Mellor, 2006, p. 107).

A code provides access to society

During Braille's lifetime, Western culture was on the verge of recognizing the rights of every individual (including one who is blind) to be educated to reach his or her own full potential. Education of blind people meant a universal tactile literacy medium needed to be established that was a fully designed, comprehensive system equivalent to print. The need for a tactile literacy medium led Braille to invent one, and the presence of a community of blind students at a special school allowed Braille's code to be shared and valued.

History shows us that the rights of individuals to seek their own futures and aspire to their own dreams is a relatively new concept in Western culture, one that remains unknown in many places in the world. The struggle for true access and equality for blind persons continues in our era. Like the students in that first school for blind children in Paris, the tradition of community, of blind people validating the efforts of blind people, continues within organized blind consumer groups, and emphasizes the relevance of braille and the need to push forward the agenda for equality.

Louis Braille was an extraordinary man. Mellor (2006) describes him as a man who was brilliant, compassionate, and a leader; he was admired by all who knew him. In the context of history, Braille was the right man for his time and his extraordinary contributions to blind people cannot be overstated. On this 200th anniversary of his birth, it seems appropriate to try to understand the historical context in which his achievements occurred. This essay proposes that a confluence of historical events and philosophies made braille possible.

We can find much to admire in the elegant solution a blind teenager found to solve the problem of access by blind people to the written word. Let us also recognize the courage of the philosophers of the Enlightenment whose controversial writings inspired many of the most important precepts of our democratic societies.


More Braille
As the celebration of Louis Braille's 200th birthday continues, readers can find all the JVIB Louis Braille Bicentennial Celebration essays online at <www.afb.org/jvib/louisbraille>. Discover more interesting information on the life and impact of Louis Braille at: <www.afb.org/louisbraille>.


References

Hatlen, P. (2000). Historical perspectives. In M. C. Holbrook & A. J. Koenig's (Eds.), Foundations of Education: Vol. 1. History and theory of teaching children and youths with visual impairments (2nd ed., pp. 1-54). New York: AFB Press.

Jourdain, M. (1916). Diderot's early philosophical works. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company.

Lowenfeld, B. (1975). The changing status of the blind. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.

Mellor, M. C. (2006). Louis Braille: A touch of genius. Boston: National Braille Press.

Paulsen, W. R. (1987). Enlightenment, romanticism, and the blind in France. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Stuart H. Wittenstein, Ed.D., superintendent, California School for the Blind, 500 Walnut Avenue Fremont, CA 94536; e-mail: <swittenstein@csb-cde.ca.gov>.


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