Charles University Prague, Czech Republic | Published: 17 March, 2017
ISSUE 12 | Pages: 1-11 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2017-6750
This article traces the motif of the blind man made to see, also known as the Molyneux problem, from the writings of Irish philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries to 20th-century Irish plays. The narrative of restoring sight to the blind is taken as a paradigmatic example of overcoming a disability, with a cure that normalises the blind persons and allows them to reintegrate into society. The paper argues that this narrative was problematised by Irish philosophers and playwrights from Molyneux and Berkeley to Yeats, Synge, Beckett and Friel.
En este artículo se investiga el tema de las personas ciegas que recuperan la vista, también conocido como el Problema de Molyneux, acudiendo para ello a los escritos de filósofos irlandeses de los siglos XVII y XVIII hasta llegar a obras de teatro irlandesas del siglo XX. El relato de la recuperación de la visión por parte de personas ciegas se interpreta como ejemplo paradigmático de superación de una discapacidad, a través de una cura que normaliza a los invidentes y les permite reintegrarse en la sociedad. En este trabajo, sin embargo, se apoya la tesis de que este relato se puso en duda por parte de filósofos y dramaturgos irlandeses, desde Molyneux a Berkeley hasta llegar a Yeats, Synge, Beckett y Friel.
Ceguera; filosofía irlandesa; relaciones sociales; Samuel Beckett; Brian Friel
Writing about the experience of people with visual impairment, Rod Michalko points out that “Far from being a sheer individual and thus personal experience, blindness is a social one. It is an experience that ‘comes to us’ – to blind and sighted people alike – always-already framed by and wrapped in the ‘one size fits all’ conceptual and material cloak of culture” (Michalko 2010). This article examines some aspects of the construction of blindness that “comes to us” from Irish philosophy and the ways in which is worked and reworked in Irish theatre. I will focus on stories of restoring sight to the blind in order to highlight continuities and differences along three main axes – embodied experience, interpersonal interactions, and religious or spiritual discourse.
The narrative of a blind man made to see is taken here as paradigmatic since it explores the interface between absence of sight and “normal” vision. Blindness, like any disability, is constructed as a deviation from the standard, a difference that must be explained or overcome: “Blindness time is the time to set its time to rehabilitation, to a person who merely happens to be blind, to being synchronized with the time of being ‘like-everyone-else’” (Michalko 2010). The restoration of sight should therefore eliminate the difference, removing the deviant and bringing the patient into the fold of normative society. In Irish plays about the curing of blindness, however, the men and women who gain sight find it difficult to re-negotiate their relations with companions and social connections, and often fail in creating a viable position for themselves as sighted people, leading to suffering, banishment, and possible death. This scepticism about the ability of the blind to enter directly into the sighted world can be traced back to the writings of Irish philosophers, especially William Molyneux and George Berkley.1 The paper will therefore review the history of the trope of the blind man made to see within Irish philosophy as a background for discussing its re-imagining in four 20th century plays: W.B. Yeats’s The Cat and the Moon (1917), J. M. Synge’s The Well of the Saints (1904), Samuel Beckett’s Rough for Theatre I (1976), and Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney (1994).
The Blind Man in Irish Philosophy
Defining what Irish philosophy is, who should be included under this title, and whether the term is even a meaningful way to describe a certain collection of philosophical texts is a vexed question that will not be broached here. Instead, the discussion will follow David Berman in focusing on the distinct school of thought that developed in Ireland between the 1690s and 1750s:
It was born with John Toland, grew with Peter Browne, William King, George Berkeley and Francis Hutcheson, and died with Robert Clayton and Edmund Burke. This tradition was largely autochthonous or indigenous, and it engaged most of the outstanding Irishmen of the time, as well as a host of lesser figures. (2005: 79)
Among the philosophers of this Irish school, two stand out for their contribution to the discussion on blindness: William Molyneux and George Berkeley.
In recent years there has been a growing interest in the role of vision in early modern philosophy, from Descartes onwards. For the Enlightenment thinkers, as the name might indicate, vision was the main instrument for learning about the world, and a metaphor for cognition in general. This centrality of vision, commonly termed “ocularcentrism”, was fundamental for modern philosophy and as Martin Jay shows, was severely critiqued by the French poststructuralists of the 20th-century. In Blindness and Enlightenment Kate E. Tunstall argues that alongside the centrality of vision in the 18th-century, there was an important literary and philosophical tradition concerned with blindness and the figure of the blind man (2011: 14). Her argument concurs with Michel Foucault’s observation in The Birth of the Clinic, that there were “two great mythical experiences on which the philosophy of the eighteenth century had wished to base its beginning: the foreign spectator in an unknown country, and the man born blind restored to light” (2003: 65). If vision was conceived as the most direct and accurate mode of cognition, then the restoration of vision served as a metaphor for the discovery of truth, and the blind man who regains sight was compared to a child learning a new lesson, or a scientist discovering a law of nature. Thus, the primacy of vision as a metaphor for a privileged access to truth induced a closer attention to blindness and its incorporation into the epistemological field.
For Foucault, who writes mostly about French history, the metaphor of the blind man regaining sight is primarily concerned with knowledge, describing the way in which the truth about the world is revealed to a person who has no prior experience of it, and therefore no prejudice or pre-conceived ideas that would interfere with immediate experience. This very metaphor, however, was itself developed in a particular historical context and in carries resonances and associations that make this embryonic narrative very different from the clean slate it advocates as a guarantee of truth. The history of the trope is especially important within the Irish context, since, as Berman argues, “The similitude of the blind man is more than a mere illustration. It is the root metaphor, as it were, of Irish philosophy. And it is hardly an accident that the Molyneux problem, with which it is clearly associated, was very much an Irish problem” (2005: 87). The close association of restored sight with religious revelation and miracles constitutes an important intertext for early modern thinkers in Ireland. The ability of a person who was blind from birth to understand visual input after an operation to restore sight was first questioned by William Molyneux, who wrote an important treatise about optics and whose wife was blind. Molyneux was a proponent of John Locke, to whom he sent this inquiry in 1688:
a Jocose Problem … Suppose a Man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his Touch to Distinguish between a Cube and a Sphere (Suppose) of Ivory, nighly of the same Bignes, so as to tel, when he felt One and tother, Which is the Cube and which the Sphære. Suppose then, the Cube and Sphære placed on a Table, and the Blind man to be made to see. Quære whether by his sight, before he touchd them, he could now Distinguish and tell which is the Globe which the Cube. (De Beer 1979: 651. Original spelling retained)
The Molyneux problem has been extensively discussed in philosophy ever since its introduction and is still being referred to in cognitive and psychological studies, including Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars, which was a major source for Brian Friel’s play, Molly Sweeney. The problem questions a basic assumption of Enlightenment epistemology – the ability of a person without preconceived knowledge and prior experience to directly understand sense impressions. The blind man trying to compare the light and colours he is seeing for the first time with the objects he has long known by touch can be seen as an epistemological metaphor for the way any person understands radically new information about the world. Molyneux is using a practical setting to concretise the problem, turning it from an abstract metaphor into an embodied experience of a specific individual with a specific knowledge, trying to achieve a specific goal.
One of the most famous answers to the Molyneux problem comes from George Berkeley, who contended that the blind man will not even understand the question. In his first major work, A New Theory of Vision, he argues that knowledge of distance and form is not achieved through direct perception, but derives from a combination of visual cues and corresponding tactile sensations – an ability that must be acquired by experience (Berkeley 2000a: 47). A man who recently gained sight will be literally unable to see a cube and a globe in front of him, perceiving only a coloured plane without depth or distance that he must learn to interpret in order to discern separate objects and relate the different colours to distance, size, and form. As Branka Arsić summarises, “The visible world never offers itself to the gaze as a world nicely formed into geometrical bodies” (2003: 50).
Despite the common-sense attitude adopted by both Molyneux and Berkeley, the problem of what blind people can understand about sighted experience was mainly interpreted within a theological context in Ireland. Berman provides two prominent examples from this period – Peter Browne (1671-1735) and Edward Synge (c. 1690-1762), who both compared the belief in religious matters to a blind person who is asked to believe in the existence of light and colour that she cannot see herself. (2005: 86). For these writers, the knowledge to be discovered by the senses is primarily the truth of religion. What to us may seem like a scientific or psychological problem, for the Irish philosophers “turns precisely on the question of representation; and at the core of the dispute lies the issue of our knowledge of God”, according to Terry Eagleton (1995: 50). The challenge to religion posed by the Molyneux problem may be gauged when compared with a blind man imagined much earlier by the 12th-century philosopher Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl, whose writings may have inspired Molyneux as well:2
imagine a child, growing up in a certain city, born blind, but otherwise intelligent and well endowed, with a sound memory and an apt mind. Through his remaining channels of perception he will get to know the people as well as all sorts of animals and objects, and the streets and alleys, houses and markets – eventually well enough to walk through the city without a guide, recognizing at once everyone he meets … Suppose after he had come this far, his eyesight were restored and he could see. He would
- On the relation between Irish theatre and Irish philosophical “idealism” see Smith (2011) and Pilný (2006: 11-23) on the tension between realism and idealism in Yeats’s theatrical project. [↩]
- Ibn Tufayl’s work has been widely read in the 17th century and was first translated into English in 1674. John Locke was almost certainly acquainted with the work in Latin translation, see Russell (1994). [↩]
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