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Seeing with the Hands

Blindness, Vision and Touch After Descartes

Mark Paterson

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A literary, historical and philosophical discussion of attitudes to blindness by the sighted, and what the blind ‘see’

The “man born blind restored to light” was one of two foundational myths of the Enlightenment, according to Foucault. With ophthalmic surgery in its infancy, the fascination with blindness and what the blind ‘see’ once their vision is restored remained largely hypothetical. Was being blind, as Descartes once remarked, like ‘seeing with the hands’? Did evidence from early ophthalmic surgery resolve debates about the relationship between vision and touch in the newly sighted? Has the standard representation of blind figures in literature been modified by recent autobiographical accounts of blind and vision impaired writers and poets?

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Introduction: On questioning blindness and what the blind ‘see’
1. ‘Seeing with the Hands’: Descartes, blindness, and vision
2. ‘Suppose a man born blind…’: Cubes and Spheres, Hands and Eyes
3. Objects that ‘touch’d his eyes’: Surgical experiments in the Recovery of Vision
4. Voltaire, Buffon, and Blindness in France
5. The Testimony of Blind Men: Diderot’s Lettre
6. Reading with the fingers. Tactile signs and the possibilities for a language of touch
7. Seeing With the Tongue: Sight Through Other Means
8. Blindness, Empathy, and ‘Feeling Seeing’: Literary Accounts of Blind Experience

About the Author

Dr Mark Paterson is in the Department of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh. He has authored Consumption and Everyday Life (Routledge, 2005, soon to have a Second Edition), The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies (Bloomsbury, 2007), and co-edited Placing Touch, Touching Space for Ashgate (2012). He has published book chapters and journal articles on the senses, blindness, and sensory technologies. He is currently working on a monograph about the genealogy of bodily sensations, How We Became Sensory-Motor.


Paterson surveys the long and checkered history of the Hypothetical Blind Man from Enlightenment philosophy to contemporary cognitive science. Both lucid and comprehensive, his account takes the fresh approach to set these traditional representations against the testimony of actual blind people, creating a more nuanced and complex understanding of blindness.

- University of California, Berkeley, Georgina Kleege

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