Helen and Heidegger: Disabled Dasein, Language and Others

Both Heidegger's Being and Time and Helen Keller's The Story of my Life address the problem of what it means for humans to be optimally human. In reading these texts together, I hope to show that Helen's life-story confirms Heidegger's existential analyses to some extent, but also, importantly, poses a challenge to them with respect to the interrelated issues of disability, language and others. Heidegger's hermeneutic explication of what it means to be human is intended to uncover supposedly basic human existential structures. As a fore-structure for this explication, Heidegger projects an already able-bodied, self-sufficient adult, resolutely engaged in daily activity. I shall argue, however, that it is due to this starting-point in adult-Dasein that Heidegger's existential analyses miss important insights concerning the meaning of being human to be gained from Helen's experience. Starting from the essentially disabled child-Dasein, Helen describes her struggle to achieve the very condition that Heidegger assumes from the start, first through rescue by the other as teacher, who offered the gift of language and community, and thereafter in her grasp of language as a “pharmakon.” I hope to show in the end that Helen's experience of a struggle for humanity offers the model for an alternative projection, that of an essentially disabled and needy Dasein, which, I believe, provides a more viable fore-structure than Heidegger's for a hermeneutics of humanity. S. Afr. J. Philos. Vol.22(1) 2003: 98-112
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DOI 10.4314/sajpem.v22i1.31363
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