In the monograph for Edinburgh University Press, Seeing With the Hands: Blindness, Vision & Touch after Descartes, I examine historical and philosophical responses to the so-called ‘Molyneux Problem’ first published in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), and taken up by Berkeley in 1709, where blindness is treated as an epistemological problematic. In a period where cataract operations were becoming increasingly performed and discussed, the book follows the development of philosophical approaches to blindness, vision and touch firstly in England, then in France by Voltaire, Buffon, and Diderot. I argue that questions raised at this historical juncture about cross-modal perception have clear implications for contemporary conceptions of blindness and technologies of sensory substitution, including the innovative work of Paul Bach-y-Rita on Tactile-Visual Sensory Substitution (TVSS) systems. The book addresses the place of blindness in philosophy and early psychology as a counterpoint to the supposed centrality of vision.
The interest in blindness follows in the wake of my doctoral thesis and has developed into other publications, including a book chapter on TVSS ‘Philosophies of sensory substitution: The case of the seeing tongue’ in the recent OUP collection The Senses and Their Modalities (2014, edited by Matthen, Stokes, Biggs), and journal articles about blindness in British Journal of Visual Impairment (2006) and The Senses and Society (2006). Most recently I have published articles on literary and autobiographical treatments of blindness, firstly in a special issue on blindness of Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature (2013) and, secondly, in an article for Emotion, Space and Society (2014).
‘Seeing with the hands’: Philosophical Approaches to Touch and Blindness [World Blind Union Newsletter Article]
Within the history of Western philosophy it is true to say that vision, and visual metaphors about truth and certainty within knowledge, remains the predominant sense, the modality that frames most discussions of perceptual experience and the sense explored furthermost in examples. Indeed, at the heart of Plato’s famous ‘theory of forms’, taught to philosophy undergraduates around the world, is the word eidos, translated variously as ‘image’ or ‘idea’, underlining the visual basis for explanation. Likewise, criteria for establishing certainty of knowledge has involved visual metaphors, where in order to attain certainty in our ideas, according to René Descartes, one aims for “clear and distinct perception” (Fifth Meditation). If much philosophy, especially in the Anglo-American tradition, is centred upon clarifying concepts and rigorously defending ideas from scepticism, the basis for judging what is ‘clear’ and what is ‘opaque’ presumes a basic level of optical aptitude and experience.
If much of the history of philosophy presupposes the ability to conceptualise vision, firstly, where does this leave the blind philosopher or blind interested layman? Secondly, what is the place of touch in this ocularcentric history of philosophy? The book I am currently writing, entitled Seeing With the Hands: Blindness, Vision and Touch After Descartes (Edinburgh University Press), has something to say about the first question, but much more about the second. Dealing with blind writers and academics, including the poet and short story writer José Luis Borges, the theologian John Hull, the literary critic Georgina Kleege, and the philosopher Martin Milligan, in one chapter I explore autobiographical writing about experiences of blindness that has blossomed in the twentieth century. Previous discussions within philosophical texts treated blindness simply as lacking vision, and therefore a counterexample to visual ideas or metaphors. Therefore the blind person remains an unnamed, blank hypothetical figure whose purpose is to illustrate theories of vision. It is Descartes, once again, who briefly discusses a hypothetical blind man who uses a cane, making an analogy between hands and eyes so that the blind are conceived of as “seeing with their hands”. He does this, appropriately enough, in his book Optics [Dioptrique] of 1637. The wealth of accounts by blind and vision impaired writers who articulate their experience works as a healthy counterpoint to this conception of blindness as lack, providing a more fine-tuned and personal accounts that counter the use of blindness as a hypothetical ‘problem’ for philosophy.
The book deals with a number of arguments at a number of historical junctures, and there is insufficient space for a detailed overview of them all. However, the second question, about the role of touch, is central and runs throughout the book. One chapter in particular focuses on an early formulation of the transfer of sensory information from hand to eye. Following Descartes’ hypothetical treatments, in 1688 the Irishman William Molyneux posed a question to English philosopher John Locke that was answered in the second edition of Locke’s famous book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Simply put, the question asks: if a man born without sight, and who already knew a solid cube and sphere through direct tactile experience, was now able to see, would he be able to tell which was which by sight alone, without touching them? This famous question sparks long-running debate, including further philosophical speculation by British and French philosophers, as George Berkeley wrote An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision in 1709 in part to answer this question, which in turn was taken up by Thomas Reid and in France by Voltaire and Diderot, whose famous Essay on Blindness for the Purpose of Those Who See was written in 1749. When the question was first formulated no cataract surgery had been performed, and the Molyneux Question was formulated as a hypothetical epistemological problem. However, such speculation turned into more scientific proto-psychological investigation, as in 1728 the surgeon Cheselden performed a couching operation on a young man’s cataracts, and the report describes the patient’s process of learning to see. Further surgical accounts and restatements of the problem are discussed in another chapter of my book, having encroached into the twenty-first century in fact, and remain contentious to this day, as a recent book by Sean Gallagher entitled How the Body Shapes the Mind (2005) reveals. According to some accounts, the originator of the question, Molyneux, had a wife who was blind, hence sparking his interest in the problem. Little did he suspect that his question would become so actively discussed within the philosophy and psychology of cross-modal perception, and developmental psychology, over three centuries later.