The Passing Show

Ian Hacking

  • On Blindness: Letters between Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan
    Oxford, 188 pp, £16.99, September 1995, ISBN 0 19 823543 7

Bryan Magee is a brilliant philosophical entrepreneur, host of two BBC television series in which he interviewed live philosophers and dead ones (the latter mediated by other live ones). The late Martin Milligan was a talented philosopher, one who was blind, not from birth but early in life. Magee, with characteristic panache, had a splendid idea: let’s get at some philosophical issues about perception by pursuing a dialogue. The resulting exchange of letters between the two men is printed here, with an Introduction and Afterword by Magee.

Seeing fascinates philosophers, especially those of an empiricist disposition, who are ever tempted to model knowledge on perception. There is no major philosophical discussion of deafness or other sensory impairments, but there has long been a famous question about blindness, attributed to one Molyneux, who wrote about it to Locke on 2 March 1693: ‘Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere ... Suppose the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man made to see; query, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?’ The old philosophers thought not, but Richard Gregory and subsequent workers have told more complex stories about recovery from blindness. We do not need philosophers to become engrossed. The one non-spiritual goal of Christ’s ministry was the curing of blindness, and every evangelist describes successes. One recovered man first said that he saw men like trees, except that they walked about. Was this a visual problem, or a conceptual one? Surely a blind philosopher would help us with these and many other questions?

Martin Milligan, born in 1923, blinded as a boy, was educated with sighted children. Growing up in a Glasgow slum, he won scholarships, first to Edinburgh University and, on graduation at 19, to Balliol, where he took a first in PPE. He there began a research degree in Hegel’s philosophy of history. Hegelian he may have been by choice, but he was at Oxford during the postwar glory days of ordinary language philosophy. That shows wonderfully in the correspondence. Life was not easy on him. He was for many years a Communist, not so terrible a thing in those days for an intellectual, but in addition he was not only a very prickly character but also a vociferous blind activist long before that was respectable. Dons, as Magee says, were terrified of having a ‘strident, highly intelligent, articulate blind Communist’ as a colleague (add in, what Magee implies, something of a womaniser). Scary. He had to scrounge for years before getting a job at Leeds University when he was 36.

There are many philosophical reasons to be interested in comparing the experiences of the sighted and the blind. Magee’s is original. He presents himself as deeply moved by Kant and Schopenhauer. There is far more to the real world than we can experience. Our knowledge of it is limited by our sensory organs. It is thinkable that we should have other organs, and hence experience aspects of the world beyond our present ken. We cannot directly imagine what it would be like to have another type of sense. But blind people are in precisely that position – that is, they lack one medium for perceiving the world. They know that there is one type of perception that is closed to them. If we reflect on their situation from within, says Magee, then perhaps we can by analogy think about our situation, and what it would be like for there to be another sensory access to the external world.

Magee is fully serious when he pines for more kinds of sense data. Early on in the correspondence he insists that Milligan as a blind person is simply ‘unaware of the sheer amount of what is going on that passes you by’. But, he continues, ‘we are almost certainly all in the same boat with regard to total reality; it is nearly all passing us by without our having any means of knowing what we are missing.’ Here he is lamenting missed experience of another category altogether, and not, for example, absent fundamental physics or missed experience of the inside of a tornado. The late Timothy Leary, guru of LSD, is said to have exclaimed, after dropping acid, that Kant was right! There is a noumenal world out there, happily hinted at by perception-altering drugs. Kant, happily, survives such nonsense.

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[*] I’m here using the Penguin translation by R.J. Hollingdale (1968), omitting some of the phrases in the parentheses.