BOOK REVIEW / Darkness visible

On Blindness by Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan Oxford, pounds 16.99; Robert Winder is entranced by a philosophical debate full of human reflexes and sightless insights

Everyone knows that deformations of the eye - everything from short-sightedness to a squint - are a sign of unusual cleverness, though it is not clear which is the cause and which the effect. History is full of penetrating seers - from Homer and Tiresias to Milton and Borges - who could not make out the end of their noses. Sometimes this is ascribed to the superior thoughtfulness of blind people, a thrown-back-on-itself mental intensity which the rest of us perhaps envy (without coveting). At other times it is attributed to the bravery and resolve which blind people need to make their way in the unfriendly and impatient world of the sighted. At any rate, it is usually discussed as a personal tragedy or arbitrary handicap which deserves our sympathy and interest.

But Bryan Magee's remarkable new book on the subject is not concerned with the rights and wrongs of how blind people are stigmatised and alienated. A senior philosopher, he became interested in blindness as part of a theoretical debate about a classical dilemma: do we achieve knowledge of the world through experience (as empirical philosophers would have it), or is it the product of intellectual learning and contemplation - the Platonic idea? He suggests that all of us are handicapped by the limitations of our own sensory equipment (we do not see as avidly as hawks, say); but we are not, he is sure, as handicapped as blind people. Do they, he wonders, apprehend an entirely different world? If so, what does this tell us about the nature of knowledge? To find out, he opened a correspondence with Martin Milligan, the blind head of philosophy at Leeds University. The letters are published here, in a form necessarily truncated by Milligan's death. But what survives is a superb document - a lively and acute philosophical dialogue pitched at a high level of intellectual seriousness, written in the readable style of a letter to a pal, and kindled by the full range of human reflexes - zeal, curiosity, defensiveness, touchy pride.

Milligan, the hero of the book, begins by rewriting the question Magee has asked him, Magee asks: "How do I know that I am blind?" and Milligan gives it a twist: "Why do I think it reasonable to believe that I am blind?" Immediately, the focus of the argument sharpens. Milligan, it is clear, is not willing to accept Magee's confident terms. He does not "know", through experience, that he is blind, because he has no experience of light with which to compare it. He simply has to take other people's word for it. This is not, though, merely a way of giving priority to intellectual knowledge over knowledge felt along the pulse. Blindness, it emerges, is itself an experience, and one that does seem to call forth an enhancement in the other senses. Milligan writes beautifully about the way blind people sense objects as "air-thickening occupants of space" - and know acoustically the difference between a hedge and a wall.

It is not possible, in precis, to do anything like justice to the metaphysical details of the conversation. It ranges over the meaning of a lake full of flamingoes, the taste of coffee, the facial expressions of George Bush, the difference between a picture and a map (Milligan, tellingly, argues that a map is more expressive).Many of the best moments flow from the tetchy relationship between the two men. Magee is determined that Milligan should admit the extent of the loss felt by blind people. Milligan politely refuses. At one point Milligan chides his co-author for his assumption that blind people inhabit a diminished world; Magee retorts that he made no such assertion, and boasts about his credentials as a liberal thinker. Milligan apologises with delicious coolness: "I did not know the full extent of your splendid work in the humanist cause in the `sixties'." You sense a big philosophical statement coming up, about the relationship between inverted commas and life, but, alas, it never comes.

It is a shame in a way that Magee has the last word, and uses it to refute most of what Milligan has said. He seems to think it axiomatic that readers will have found Milligan's arguments self-serving and narrow. When Milligan disputes his premises, Magee accuses him of getting "sidetracked". Perhaps, he muses, Milligan was terrified to admit how much pleasure he was missing out on. Readers might see Milligan's equanimity as the higher and subtler achievement. The way things look, he insists, is not an accurate guide to the way things are. Who could disagree?

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there