Seeing with the Hands, Touching with the Eyes: Vision, Touch and the Enlightenment Spatial Imaginary

Author: Paterson, Mark

Source: The Senses and Society, 1 July 2006, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 225-242(18)


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Blindness has been a topic of great interest for philosophers, and the centrality of the so-called Molyneux problem explicitly raises questions concerning visual and tactile experience of the blind. Begun as a purely speculative philosophical exercise before ophthalmic operations could be performed, the debate continues and is examined here in relation to current work in psychology and neuropsychology. From debates and correspondence in the seventeenth century onwards, sparked by this hypothetical question, first-person accounts of the blind were sought to bolster the philosophical speculations. The question asked by Molyneux is crucial in Enlightenment philosophy, and is discussed in a series of dialogs between philosophers such as Locke, Berkeley, Descartes and especially Diderot. This paper shows how a philosophical debate rooted in a distinct period in history has continued to excite the attention of those who attempt to draw together a psychological philosophy of sensory-spatial experience. In particular, the Molyneux problem concentrated on the interaction of the visual and the tactile, of hands and eyes, and how they are involved in spatial cognition. The legacy of these debates concerning the spatial imaginary of the blind remain pertinent to this day.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: July 1, 2006

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