Initial Thoughts on the Meaning(s) of Blindness, via Art

Close-up photo of a human eye with a blue-green iris

Although I report most often on research and breaking news about blindness and vision loss, I also like to take the occasional flight of fancy and explore the (mostly unanswerable) philosophical questions that surround the meanings of sight, vision, blindness, and cognition.

My Blog Inspirations

Recently, I was inspired by philosopher Alva Noë’s series on the National Public Radio (NPR) blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. Space Without Eyes debunks the notion that the sense of sight is required to explore the spatial structure of the world, while Blind Perspective further explores blindness, the perception of space, and the possibilities inherent in the concept of “the blind painter.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

All of which recalled a fascinating conference I attended last year at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The primary theme was the development of art education and appreciation programs for blind persons, but, as with all art, the subject intensified as the conference (and experience) progressed. The speakers represented an intriguing range of disciplines: Neuroscientists discussed Renaissance geometry and theories of outline, perspective, and convergence, while artists and museum educators addressed access to the arts, including two-dimensional works (such as paintings and drawings) for people who are blind.

Essentially, I wrestle with similar questions as I continue my lifelong inquiry into the nature, meaning, and effects of blindness:

How do we form images about, and therefore interpret, the sensate world?

How do our brains construct mental images? Do we use only our eyes, or do our other senses contribute to this imagery as well?

Can people who have never seen understand the concept of space and the arrangement of objects within it?

And what is “seeing,” really? Is it simply absorbing objective reality through the eyes, or is it more? How much of what we describe as “seeing” comes from without, and how much emanates from within?

Philosopher Denis Diderot

A portrait of philosopher Denis Diderot. Credit: freely available via Creative Commons

As I listened to my scientific and artistic colleagues, I recalled the work of the Enlightenment philosopher and encyclopedist Denis Diderot, whose 1749 Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient or Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See presciently described blind persons, and blindness itself, as worthy of scientific and philosophical inquiry. As Diderot’s character Lenôtre, the “Blind Man of Puiseaux,” concluded,

Sight … is a kind of touch which extends to distant objects and is not applied to our face. Touch gives … an idea only of relief. Therefore, a mirror is an instrument that represents us in relief at a distance from ourselves, when properly placed with regard to [ourselves].

Within this relief environment, the blind man experiences sight (the unknown “other”) as a kind of figure/ground relationship; it is bound in the notion of difference – if the points of a figure are the same height or texture as the ground, they are lost and the figure disappears. This way of presenting “the other” is a set of comparisons and/or metaphors that attempts to move both parties (the blind man and the sighted man) beyond themselves into a new space of greater understanding.”

Diderot also worked closely with Thérèse-Adèle Husson, a gifted and accomplished blind woman, to determine the methods she employed to construct mental images of her environment. “When I describe a scene to you,” he asked, “where do you see it?” “I see it in my head,” she replied, “the same as you, Monsieur Diderot.”

The Turkish Painter Esref Armagan

A photo of the painter Esref Armagan. He is wearing sunglasses, a navy blue suit, a red necktie, and a wide-brimmed brown dress hat. Looking good! Credit: Esref Armagan

And how does one explain the work of the blind Turkish painter Esref Armagan, who is able to draw in three-point perspective, demonstrating a perfect grasp of horizontal and vertical convergence at imaginary points in the distance? Can biology alone explain such abilities?

Of course, I don’t have answers, and probably never will, but such questions are certainly worthy of exploration. Next week, I’ll discuss another thorny philosophical issue: What terms do we use to describe blindness and blind people? I think you’ll enjoy the wide range of thoughtful opinions from our blind friends and readers.