4.1 Thoughts about Blind Faith and Blindfolds

Sunday, 9. August 2009


The book that got Diderot into serious trouble was titled “Letter on the Blind, for the Benefit of Those Who see”. Diderot wrote this book in 1749 in response to a real event.

That year a famous surgeon in Paris announced that he was going to remove an eye disease from a girl who had been born blind. The purpose of the surgery was to restore her vision. This had never been done before. Diderot and his friends were excited to see what would happen. If all our ideas came from our senses, as the English philosopher John Locke had suggested, then perhaps the ideas of a blind person would be very different from a person who could see. Obviously, the girl would have no idea what a color was – but would she be able to recognize objects by sight that she had once only been able to touch? For instance, when she had regained her sight, and looked at an apple, would she know what it was without touching? All of the young philosophers wanted to watch her reaction at the moment she retrieved her vision.

Unfortunately, the surgeon refused to let them watch the surgery itself. Nonetheless, Diderot compared the experience to the case he had heard about in England, where a famous mathematician called Nicholas Saunderson had become blind soon after birth. On his deathbed Saunderson had said to the priest: “If you want me to believe in God, you must make me to touch him.’

By putting this words in Saunderson’s mouth rather than in his own, Diderot avoided saying outright that he questioned the existence of God. Still, the tone of “Letter on the Blind” was more daring than Diderot’s earlier “Philosophic Thoughts”. He didn’t go so far as to deny God’s  existence, Diderot explained in a letter to Voltaire, but his aim was to show tolerance toward those who had different religious beliefs than his own, or even no religious beliefs at all. However, as far as the authorities were concerned, this time Diderot had gone too far.

Although he had not been so foolish to put his name on the book itself Diderot had spoken quite freely about it in the literary circles of Paris and it was not difficult for the police to identify him as the author. With the result that at 7:30 in the morning on July 24, in 1749,  two policemen arrived at his door…

Will Diderot be arrested…to be continued tomorrow 


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