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.

Magee’s hypothesis is intelligible: there could be wholly unimagined types of sensations which, if we had them, we would take to be experiences of the material world, and which fitted in with, but were of a fundamentally different type from, any such sensations we now have. Really different. A verse of 1664 praised microscopes ‘by whose augmenting power we now see more/than all the world has ever done before’, and today the atomic-force and tunnelling microscopes can give us images of the simplest molecules. But microscopes seem not to be for Magee – just more seeing, I suppose. He wants something really different, beyond present fantasy, viz beyond inserting detectors and chips into the skull that feed more of the electromagnetic spectrum (ultra-violet and infra-red to start with) into our visual receptors. (He does not mention such opportunities, but by his lights they would only give us more seeing.)

Magee does not discuss the constraints on his hypothesis of a sense that is completely different. The new experiences have to fit in with our present ones. If they were like LSD hallucinations, not in being visual but in leading people to try flying off sky-scrapers, they would not be experiences of what Magee calls reality. Also, since Magee is interested in reality, his postulated sense must make use of what is at least physically available. Telepathy – knowledge of the thoughts of a stranger unassisted by any type of bodily cueing whatsoever – is, so far as we know, not physically possible. The turn-of-the-century members of the Society for Psychical Research in London and Cambridge could at least think that the ether would permit of telepathic communication, so they could imagine a physics that made sense of it, but their good idea has turned out to be completely wrong. Magee’s imagined senses have to make use of something in the physical world. I wonder if there is anything physical that is actually omitted by our present sensory apparatus, aside from limitations to the range of tastes, or sounds, or electromagnetic disturbances that we can pick up. Although Magee’s hypothesis may be intelligible, it is not so clear that it makes physical sense. Sight, sound, taste, smell and touch may have used up all the potential types of sense the material world could allow creatures of our size. We could be more sensitive in each of those modalities than we are, but Magee wants a new modality.

Magee despises what he calls empiricist philosophy, whose nadir is Hume. Yet his desire to know more about reality does not direct him to the sciences. What he wants is more passing show, he wants more experience, more sensation, and believes that is the way to some deeper understanding of reality. If we try to portray extra-sensory ability in science fiction, we create creatures that can do more than we can, because of the extra senses. The extra senses give super-sensory beings more ability to predict, more ability to control something that in real life we get in almost terrifying abundance not by more observation but by more experimental, theoretical and applied science. Magee never mentions the possibility of being able to do something better, because one had more sense organs. Is he then an aesthete, and if so, why not LSD? Or is he, after all, just one of those empiricists whom he loathes, holding that knowledge of the world is experience of the world?

Fortunately the correspondence with Milligan developed in ways that Magee did not expect. You might think that this was because Milligan brought in new insights because he was blind. Not so. He does tell, with muted anger, some home truths about the experiences of blind people. For example, when he was trying to survive as a shorthand typist – current affairs broadcasting was one area he tried, for which he was superbly over-qualified – he was regularly refused. He learned in a bar that on one occasion it was ‘because we have a lot of stairs in our building,’ as if blind people weren’t experts on stair management. I and other sighted people do need reminders like that. He tells us how one can get the sense of an entire room from sound, or tell by the echo of footfalls when one is passing by a hedge or even a lamppost.

Only rarely does Milligan get carried away by his activism; his enthusiasm for blind snooker-players seems misplaced. He writes powerfully of ‘the widespread exaggeration of the importance of sight’. He might have liked Marshall McLuhan’s suggestion that the hegemonic role of vision among our senses is a consequence of the Gutenberg revolution. Before that we were alive in all our senses, fully integrated. With the advent of the mass distribution of processed information in the 15th century, sight became paramount, and we have never looked back. It takes a blind person to argue that even for sighted adults made blind, ‘loss of sight cannot and should not be experienced as anything other than a serious loss.’ But he is a sensitive thinker, knowing that, for a few who ‘lived by their eyes’, blindness can be ‘cataclysmic’. In the last letter, written shortly before he died, Milligan is as far away from Magee’s project as could be. Magee, like many others, asks him what it is like to dream. Milligan: just as your dreams are like your waking life, so mine are like my waking life. Why not ask about my waking life? He tells two dreams which may send ripples of embarrassment down the spines of some readers; he is as unselfconscious as sighted readers who bare their dreams in public. Simplistic-Freud dream interpretation still works, what with zooming up elevators to enter another building, and swimming from the ocean up rivers that get more and more narrow.

These matters arise because Milligan manoeuvred Magee away from his quest for an analogy for a missing sense organ in the sighted. He did so not because he was blind but because he had been formed in the red-hot crucible of end-of-war Oxford analytic philosophy. He has a gift for making compelling distinctions, and for listening carefully to exactly what is said. One could have guessed from the start of the exchange how it was going to go. Magee asks: ‘What in actual experience are the chief ways in which you are made aware that you lack a sense that others have?’ Answer: ‘some people can drive buses for hours through busy traffic without bumping into things. I can’t.’ Magee wanted a provoking discussion of experience and knowledge of the world, in order, as he puts it at the start, to ‘get a worthwhile indication of what sort of relationship our relationship to the unknowable is’. Milligan countered with a vivid remark about action, what we can do or not do, about his relationship to what is, for him, the undoable.

There is a lot of fuss nowadays about the end of epistemology, said to have roots on the European Continent or in latter-day pragmatism. Without any apocalyptic rubbishing, philosophers like Ryle and Austin made doing, as opposed to knowing, their trademark. Although the focus on doing, including careful attention to what we do with words, did not last long in Oxford after Austin died in 1960, it was at the time inescapable, even to someone not part of the in-group. Milligan calls Ernest Gellner’s famous onslaught on linguistic philosophy, Words and Things, ‘delicious’, and casts his own stone at the Oxford philosophers. He may not have liked them, but he breathed their air. This shows even in knee-jerk reactions. Against Magee: ‘Do you really want to say that no significance can be attached to any “concept” (should this read “word or group of words”?) if no one had ever experienced what it represents?’ He did not get the maxim ‘for concept, read word’ from Hegel.

The point at issue was this. Milligan can perhaps form the idea of being sighted, but if everyone were blind, says Magee, we could not have any such concept. Milligan retorts that we attach significance to lots of things we do not experience, like ‘millions of years’ and the unobservable entities of theoretical physics. Why could not a smart blind race of human beings form the idea of being able to interact with things using direct input from part of the electromagnetic spectrum, drive buses, even? If a Magee retorts that we derive our understanding of radio waves and so on from our experiences, then he should ‘accept my reply that “sight” is a concept which born-blind people could derive from, or construct out of, other non-visual concepts representing what they have ‘experienced’.

There is the inevitable discussion of colour. Milligan can’t really understand colour, can he? Milligan replies in form. He can use the colour words. Yes, there are many things that he cannot do. He cannot tell the colour of a man’s tie at a glance. He cannot use a blush or a sudden pallor to detect emotion, although a sigh, a pause, a change in voice, may well tell him when a person blanches. He misses a good many aesthetic experiences which he believes some people do have when contemplating some paintings. In response, we hear Magee constantly wanting to point to his experience of colours. He tells of his emotion at seeing great flocks of pink flamingos taking off from Lake Nakuru in Kenya. Blind people cannot experience that! Milligan agrees that they must miss some emotions. I had the sense that Magee was wanting all along to say these (pounds the table) colours. He always chooses vivid colours, the ones you can shout at. Having myself seen the flamingos long ago, when the lake was still almost pristine, and also watched five pelicans at dusk cruising effortlessly alongside the sands of a Northern Californian beach, with the great rollers of the grey Pacific beneath them, I’m not sure, if we go in for exotic birds, that the bright ones are the most moving sights that blind people miss.

Arguing more abstractly, Magee insists, very plausibly, that a good many descriptions have vision-related content, which must derive from direct experience. A blind person can learn to use the concepts only indirectly by inference, and so is ‘altogether incapable of understanding some of those concepts’ and only partly apprehends others. The blind person can learn about the sorts of situation in which the concepts are used, and the ways in which they are connected with other concepts, but ‘this is “meaning” of no more than a behaviourist, black-box type.’

Milligan replies with an exemplary partial analysis of the key words ‘visual terms’, ‘meaning’ and ‘experience’. Several pages beautifully exemplify the skills of linguistic philosophising. At the conceptual level – which he takes to be the level of thought and reason, if we use words carefully – he argues that he misses nothing that the sighted possess: ‘If you think there are some visual concepts which people like me cannot grasp, or grasp fully, I have to ask you what they are, or what it is in them which must elude us ... Whatever the missing something is, if it cannot be articulated it cannot affect the validity of inferences, and is therefore not conceptual, at least as I understand it.’ Then – remarkable move – if what we are talking about is ‘not concepts but words’, of course something is missing for the blind – namely, visual imagery which words may conjure up. But there may still be a good deal of sympathetic understanding; when a grieving mother says she is haunted by the image of a dead child, Milligan can imagine something of what is going on, and be moved by it. Blind people may, perhaps, be hindered from writing certain types of poetry because they do not fully grasp the visual resonances of words. He constantly surprises by the subtlety of his chains of thought, less, I would say, because of blindness than because of his Oxford osmosis.

Magee tells us that, as a university student, he was taught that ‘the term “the world” is a technical term meaning the totality of what exists or the totality of actual and possible human experience, and that the two concepts are equivalent.’ Strange teaching! Magee cites a sentence from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as a classic source of the idea that thought exhausts what exists: ‘The totality of true thoughts is a picture of the world.’ Strange reading! A picture of the world means nothing exists except what is in the picture? No other statements by anyone, not even more plausible ones from the Tractatus, are cited as evidence for the doctrine that the world equals what can be experienced by human beings. Magee could have found statements seemingly to that effect – for example, in the classical American pragmatists (but not easily, I think, in the classical British empiricists who are his bugbear).

At first I was inclined to dismiss Magee’s obsessive desire to get beyond our present senses, but I did a little experimenting. I asked a number of different groups of people what they thought about the equation, the world = the totality of possible human experience (or possible human thought or understanding – Magee jumps back and forth among these different notions). A great many of those whom I asked believed that the equation is received common wisdom. They hated it. Magee speaks for a large number of people who resent what they perceive to be a doctrine of our times.

Perhaps Nietzsche gives the most lively summary of what happened to the real world for which Magee is groping. There is a little section in Twilight of the Idols called ‘How the “real world” at last became a myth’. Nietzsche lists six stages in this progress. We start with 1) ‘the real world, attainable to the wise, the pious, the virtuous man – he dwells in it, he is it.’ Then the real world becomes 2) unattainable for the moment; 3) unattainable, but still a duty (‘the same old sun, but shining through mist and scepticism: the idea grown sublime, pale, northerly, Königsbergian’);4) unattained, unknown, hence no duty (‘cockcrow of positivism’); 5) useless: ‘let us abolish it! (Broad daylight breakfast)’; 6) ‘what world is left? the apparent world perhaps? ... But no! with the real world we have also abolished the apparent world! (mid-day; zenith of mankind)’.[*]

This zenith is not to everyone’s taste; many pine for the real world, the true world, and feel that is a world needed for virtue. But Magee, a progressive man, does not exactly long for those old days. He imagines getting closer to ‘total reality’ by getting new types of sensations of the passing show. He begins to talk like an unfulfilled lover. Our problem is inadequate equipment! He insists on ‘the limitations placed on human understanding by the nature of our equipment’: ‘A recognition of these limitations and their implications should be allowed to have its profound effect on our thinking. The consequences of such a change would be so far-reaching that no one person could possibly predict them all.’Magee urges humility in the face of our ignorance, but he does not suggest a single novel, let alone far-reaching, consequence of his insight. It will become self-evident he says, that reality is not co-extensive with what we can understand. Well, despite the fact that Magee hates Hume (the worst thing he can say about a philosopher is that he is a ‘regression towards Hume’), Hume thought exactly that. ‘While Newton seemed to draw off the veil from some of the mysteries of nature,’ Hume wrote in his History, ‘he showed at the same time the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy, and thereby restored the ultimate secrets of nature to that obscurity in which they ever did and ever will remain.’

It is not self-evident that Hume and Magee are right, but it is self-evidently possible that the human mind may be incapable of answering even the empirical questions it can pose – a thought present to serious theoretical physicists and students of the brain alike. The mind might not have enough ‘computational capacity’ for understanding its own computational capacity, let alone the structure of the cosmos. Yes, there is a lot of hubris around, but there is a lot more reflective humility about than Magee gives his fellows credit for.

Where Milligan draws subtle and sensitive distinctions, Magee tends to bluster, yet we should listen to him. He is trying to state something that does worry a lot of people. But what worries them is not some stuff about limited ‘equipment’, or a shortage of sense organs. Perhaps it is something more like a longing for ‘the wise, the pious, the virtuous man’ who not only dwells in the real world, but is it. In some traditions, the blind have been closer to that world than the sighted. Our problem, perhaps, is too many sense organs, not too few.

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