The Blind and the Mathematically Inclined

in Science in the Age of Sensibility

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print December 2002 | ISBN: 9780226720784
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226720852 | DOI:
The Blind and the Mathematically Inclined

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Vision was the Enlightenment's supreme sense, and the philosophers' preoccupation with it activated a midcentury explosion of interest in blindness, specifically in the thoughts and sentiments of blind people. This chapter traces the development of this interest, which began with a much-discussed thought experiment, published in Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), featuring a hypothetical blind man. Next came a tradition of actual experiment and observation with real blind people: cataract surgeries, interviews with the blind, and reports of their lives. One such examination, based on an interview with a blind man, was Diderot's Lettre sur les aveugles (1749). He argued that blind people thought like mathematicians and mathematicians like blind people: both were unusually impervious to sensory experience, therefore lacking in sensibility. This insensibility stunted the moral as well as intellectual faculties, Diderot suggested, and so he “suspected blind people,” and, by implication, mathematicians, of “inhumanity.” The chapter closes with institutional applications of these philosophical analyses of blindness.

Keywords: blindness; blind people; vision; sensibility; mathematics; philosophical analyses; intellectual faculties

Chapter.  23201 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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