Encountering Physical Difference: Models of Experience and Dialogue

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William Etter


hermeneutics, communication, experience


This paper utilizes Hans-Georg Gadamer’s classic philosophical study of the art of interpretation, Truth and Method (Wahrheit und Methode) (1960), to examine literary critic Leslie Fiedler’s 1996 collection of essays on bioethics and disability, Tyranny of the Normal.  Because Fiedler’s primary analytical model centers around the experience of engaging an abjected Other and subsequently revising one’s self-conception based on this experience, it is useful to examine Fiedler’s arguments with respect to Gadamer’s theories of the hermeneutic circle, the historicity of experience, and the dialectical nature of understanding.  Viewing these writings through a Gadamerian lens allows us to devise critical readings of the crucial social moment when the nondisabled “normal” individual and the person with a disability meet.  Conversely, Gadamer’s text allows us to develop important criticisms of Fiedler’s work centered on the ahistorical and non-dialectical character of Fiedler’s interpretation of nondisabled individuals’ encounters with disability.  Juxtaposing these two thinkers allows us to develop philosophical, psychological, and ethical warrants for disability rights activists’ assertions that the lives, medical treatments, media representations, and political destinies of people with disabilities must not be determined by the non-disabled alone. 

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