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How much can we know of the world independent of our conceptual structure? Not much, says Bryan Magee. Working in the Kantian tradition, and with a surety that will likely make scientific realists uneasy, Magee believes that the world as conceived from our perceptions is a phenomenon "not at all the same" as reality independent of experience (p. 2). Consider two things: 1. The sensory apparatus possessed by human beings is contingent. It might have happened that we did not have the particular combination of senses (sight, hearing, smell, etc.) that we do. There was a time, for instance, when no creatures possessed a sense of sight. Visible light existed then just as it does now. It simply was not, as it were, visible. 2. There are a variety of senses possessed by non-human animals that we do not have, as well as a variety of sensors we have invented to detect phenomena that we, all by ourselves, cannot. It seems plausible to think that humans might have had a large number of senses which we do not have. Magee holds that, if senses that we do not have are as distinct as sight, hearing, or smell, then our conception of reality would be radically altered if we had even one of them, though we cannot specify exactly what that difference might be. In other words, we miss parts of "total reality" due to our limited sensory apparatus, and because we truly miss them, we cannot even conceptualize what they are.
We do, however, have the means of understanding what sort of difference that might be, a way to understand what affect an additional sense would have on human beings. Some people are without a sense of sight, hearing, or smell. The differences in sensory apparatus between them and the rest of us result in experiential differences. If we could become clear on what affect, if any, these experiential differences have on the way concepts are formed by each group, then we might have some idea of what sort of feature is missing from our conception of reality generally. The kinds of differences in conceptions of reality between, for example, the sighted and the blind are plausibly analogous to the difference between our concept of reality and reality itself. So Magee argues, at least.
Fueled by this ambition, On Blindness: Letters Between Brian Magee and Martin Milligan is a correspondence between two philosophers on the differences between being blind and being sighted. The goal of this project is to elucidate how these experiential differences affect the concepts, specifically conceptions of reality, formed by each. Ultimately, however, this goal is not met. Below, I shall give a brief, thematic synopsis of the correspondence, followed by discussion of a few notable points. The text consists mainly of back-and-forth discussion of two types, philosophical and psychological, which are heavily intertwined. For present purposes, I will roughly separate them, though some mixing is bound to occur.
Most of the philosophical discussion regards questions brought up by Magee in his first letter to Milligan. Topics include how we acquire knowledge and understanding of the world, the relationship between knowledge and experience, whether what we can experience limits what we can understand, and whether the experience of language-users limits what can be communicated. The dialectic is best understood in context, but there are some broad themes. Much of the debate pertains to whether the blind are incapable of understanding a major part of concepts such as SIGHT, SEE, or LIGHT. Milligan shows that the blind, like himself, can gain a very detailed understanding of visual concepts through the way that sighted people use the terms and by relating this information to senses the blind do possess. He argues that all knowledge is propositional and that he can know and understand everything about sight that Magee can. He simply acquires the knowledge differently. In other words, for him, "knowing" is a species of "knowing that" in which the knowledge is acquired through direct experience. Conceding that there is much Milligan can know and do, Magee argues that some knowledge is experiential and that a major part of visual concepts is unavailable to the blind. In other words, the blind are capable of a rich informational understanding of visual concepts, but the experience itself is an essential part of the concept. Helpful examples are numerous, but various positions held, and distinctions made, by Bertrand Russell are central to much of the debate, and are not always fully explained. Although much of the book is intended to be open to non-philosophers, off-hand, uncited references are often used to make points, and technical language and argument abound. An advanced undergraduate course in epistemology (possibly one in philosophy of language as well) would greatly help the reader through this discussion.
Several topics relating what-it's-like to be blind are discussed insightfully. For example, why does Milligan think it reasonable to believe that others have a sense that he does not? (the most obvious reason being that others can do things he cannot) A significant portion of Milligan's letters are spent clarifying problems that are commonly, yet falsely, attributed to the blind. Sighted people rely primarily on, and often cannot imagine living without, vision, due in part to its convenience. Milligan emphasizes, however, that the different senses often provide redundant information and that not all the advantages are on the side of the sighted. The blind often develop their other senses to a greater extent, developing an "object sense," the ability to detect one's surroundings through a combination of subtle echoes and air pressure changes.
There is much discussion of what it is like to be sighted, as well. The uniqueness of sight among the senses and its "overwhelming" character are present in three major themes: 1. seeing as a greedy and lustful appetite: people do not expect to hear, smell, or taste all the time, but if they are unable to see, even for a short time, it causes severe distress, 2. whether the majority of the content of our empirical concepts is derived from visual experience, along with implications for the blind, and 3. for sighted people, the central part of many concepts, such as the concept of a person, is visual. How do these concepts differ for the blind? Unfortunately, the correspondence is ended when experiential and conceptual differences have only begun to be explored.
Though implications for varying conceptions of reality do not receive explicit discussion between Magee and Milligan, in the Introduction and the Letter to the Reader Magee presents his view and some consequences he sees as following from it. Magee argues that a great majority of reality passes us by and that we are unable even to conceptualize what we miss. Using an analogy, which he admits is imperfect, between things we cannot conceptualize either because of the limits of our sensory apparatus or because the concepts do not yet exist (e.g., quantum physics for someone in the eighteenth century), Magee concludes that human knowledge is, and always will be, "little and limited, but, above all, scrappy" (p. 175). This section is relatively self-contained, but a general understanding of Kant's general challenge to transcendental metaphysics, of which Magee makes much use, would be particularly helpful.
Points of Note
The quality of the book is greatly increased by the fact that its authors do not feel obligated to stick to "philosophical questions." Much of the correspondence consists of discussing the impressive extent to which the blind can overcome their lack of sight, both in terms of visual concepts and in practical matters. Having never been exposed to the blind for any significant amount of time, I found this quite enlightening. In this portion of the text, and to some extent in the philosophical discussion, detailed examples are plentiful. This might at times, though certainly not always, aid in making the book more approachable for readers with a less robust philosophical background.
One particularly interesting intersection between the philosophical and psychological portions of the discussion is Magee's discussion of the uniqueness of sight among the senses in Letters 6 and 7. As mentioned above, people do not expect to hear, smell, or taste all the time, but the inability to see, even momentarily, is very distressing. The visual world is permanent in a way that sounds, smells, and tastes are not. Combining this with the fact that sighted people often assume that visual appearances are what things are "really like," Magee suggests that, without sight, a Kantian ontology that does not conflate things-as-experienced with the things-in-themselves might have come naturally to us (pp. 106-107). This needs to be further qualified, however, before it is workable. The blind don't seem to "naturally" come to this sort of ontology, and Magee himself admits that our sense of touch shares the constancy of sight in the sense that lack of relevant sensory input is severely disorienting. Qualifying for this, the suggestion that without senses of sight or touch we might naturally develop a more Kantian ontology is interesting and, I think, plausible. This indirectly suggests a potential way to expand on the sort of project under review, by explicating the experiences and conceptual content of a person with none of our more "permanent" senses.
The book's most glaring, and damaging, weakness is that it is an unfinished project. As stated above, the goal of the correspondence is to make clear what experiential differences exist between the sighted and the blind and (mainly) discuss what affect those differences make on the concepts formed by each, specifically the conception of reality at large. Yet, experiential differences and conceptual content are just beginning to be explored when the correspondence is ended. Throughout the book, Magee speaks as if the majority of the philosophical discussion is little more than a side-track from their real goal. If one were to read his words uncritically, one might think that very little is accomplished philosophically. This is not the case. A consensus is not reached, but several philosophical issues are laid out, with important distinctions drawn. The authors eventually agree, however, to stick to only discussion requiring reference to the blind/sighted distinction. Although issues such as the relationship between experience and knowledge/understanding have consequences for the dependence of concept formation on experience, Magee speaks as if most of this preliminary discussion is a side-track caused by Milligan, so some readers might miss the fact that the "side-track" begins with Milligan answering questions posed by Magee.
This points to another weakness, the attitude of Magee. An author's attitude is not something I would normally dwell on in a review. In this case, however, it has such a significant negative impact on the book that I believe it cannot be ignored. At several points, Magee speaks as if Milligan were incapable of controlling his emotions, almost as if to a child. On these occasions, Magee is both unjustified and exhibiting the same overly emotional qualities he criticizes. Much of this "emotional control" talk is in the context of Magee (e.g., p. 92) claiming that Milligan (p. 42) attacks views Magee does not hold. It seems clear that not only is Milligan not making these accusations, as Milligan gives good reason to believe (p. 140), but that Magee is the one violently attacking views not held by his opponent. Nonetheless, in his Letter to the Reader, Magee again accuses Milligan of attacking views Magee does not hold, and of spending so much time doing it that Milligan "never got as far as considering the first questions I raised," which is obviously false (p. 162). Finally, again in the Letter to the Reader, he trivializes Milligan's view, implying that Milligan's philosophical views are held only to avoid admitting that his lack of visual experience makes his conception of reality "radically impoverished" and that, in doing this, he is being intellectually dishonest. Although the next edition of the book would be improved by changing the Letter to the Reader, this book is permanently affected by what is said in the correspondence, which is why I dwell on this issue.
On a more philosophical note, the conclusions drawn by Magee in the Letter to the Reader seem to go beyond his premises. His main argument, for example, is supported by five points. We know that (1) "our sensory and mental apparatus is contingent," (2) reality is contingent, (3) other creatures possess senses, and apprehend reality in ways, that we do not, (4) it is possible that we might have had additional senses that would make as much difference "to our apprehension of the world" as that between seeing and not seeing, and (5) that we naturally form a coherent view of the world from our given resources, as evidenced by the blind (173). He concludes that (Call this conclusion "C1"): "one might suppose that we sighted people would draw the obvious conclusion that…the view of the world that we thus form presumably leaves out more than it includes" (p. 173, emphasis added). A problem emerges, however, when considering a further conclusion (call it "C2") he draws from this, that human knowledge and understanding of the world will always consist of hopelessly limited, and arbitrarily related, scraps (p. 175). One of these conclusions does not follow; and which one it is depends on what exactly Magee means, in C1, in saying that our view of the world misses more than it includes.
If C1 is understood to mean that we miss much of reality as experienced through senses we do not have, then this follows from his five premises. Claims, such as C2, about knowledge or understanding of reality itself do not seem to follow from this, however, since reality, as Magee holds, is independent not only of our experience but also of the "modes in which we experience" (p. 107). On the other hand, if C1 is to mean that our view of the world misses substantial portions of reality itself (i.e., "most of reality passes us by" in a literal sense), then it's not clear that this follows from his five premises, which regard only our modes of experience. On a similar vein, C1 could mean that "most of reality passes us by" in the weaker sense that we would come closer to it, in our conception of the world, were we to have different sense faculties. If this is the case, then, again, C2 does not follow, but now because C1 is too weak. Milligan has shown that it is possible to develop an impressive understanding of senses that we do not have and information gained through them. The claim that a great majority of reality is, in principle, inaccessible to humans is too strong to follow from this third interpretation of C1. No interpretation of both C1 and C2, at least that I can think of, allows both conclusory steps.
One final point is that readers may find it useful or more enjoyable to read the Letters in different orders, or skip sections entirely, depending on their purpose for reading the book. For example, Letters 4&6 and 5&7 are paired in terms of subject matter, psychological and philosophical respectively, and each pair is independent of the other. There is something to be said for reading a book in the order the author intended, and, here, this would keep true to the timeline of the correspondence. If their purpose is to read Magee's thoughts on what the limits of our perceptual apparatus should tell us about our conception of reality, readers might want to read the Introduction and the Letter to the Reader, then skim the index for relevant passages.
If the reader is looking for the discussion promised in the Introduction, this may not be the book for them.
With regard to the goal of the project, the book must be taken for what it is, unfinished. Additionally, the majority of the philosophical discussion regards whether or not the phenomenological aspects of conscious experiences are better categorized as knowledge or something else; and, to my eye, it contributes no leaps forward. For these reasons, this is probably not a book for individual scholars to own; and I am reluctant to recommend it. That being said, much in the book is quite interesting, it is an enjoyable read, and it definitely warrants a spot in institutional libraries.
© 2010 Matthew Hudgens-Haney
Matthew Hudgens-Haney is currently earning an M.A. in Philosophy at Georgia State University and will soon begin work towards a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Georgia.