Molyneux's Question: A Window on Crossmodal Interplay in Blindness

Valeria Occelli


Abstract: In 1688, the Irish scientist William Molyneux sent a letter to the philosopher John Locke in which he asked whether a man who had been born blind and whose experience of the world was based on senses other than vision, would be able to distinguish and name a globe and a cube by sight alone, once he had been enabled to see. This issue immediately raised considerable interest amongst philosophers, who, for centuries, have continued to speculate about how this issue might be resolved. More recently, the possibility of corrective surgery for people born with congenital cataracts, has offered a valuable opportunity to explore this topic experimentally. A discussion of how Molyneux’s question has been addressed over the centuries, allows us to investigate a number of intellectual challenges, involving a variety of fields, ranging from philosophy, psychology and the cognitive sciences, to neuroscience. For instance, Molyenux’s question raises the question of whether sensory experience is specific to each sensory modality, or rather supramodal, and if a transfer of knowledge across modalities can be established. Molyneux’s question is also relevant to the discussion of whether, how and to what extent a concept of space can be developed by blind people. More generally, it concerns the idea of how conceptual knowledge is acquired and processed when vision is lacking. The present paper aims to provide an overview of all the issues raised by Molyenux’s question.

Keywords: Molyneux; Multisensory; Blindness; Nativism; Empiricism.


Il problema di Molyneux: una finestra sull’interazione intermodale nella cecità

Riassunto: Nel 1688 lo scienziato irlandese William Molyneux inviò una lettera al filosofo John Locke in cui chiedeva se un uomo nato cieco e la cui esperienza del mondo è basata su sensi non visivi, avrebbe potuto discriminare e nominare una sfera e un cubo semplicemente guardandoli, una volta acquistata la vista. La questione destò immediatamente grande interesse tra i filosofi, i quali per secoli avevano cercato di trovare una soluzione speculativa a questo problema. In tempi più recenti, la possibilità di sottoporre a un intervento individui nati con cataratta congenita ha offerto un’occasione propizia per indagare il tema in via sperimentale. Discutere il modo in cui il problema di Molyeux è stato affrontato nei secoli, permette di considerare un gran numero di questioni intellettuali che abbracciano campi diversi, dalla filosofia, alle neuroscienze, passando per la psicologia e le scienze cognitive. Per esempio, il problema di Molyenux investe la questione se l’esperienza sensibile sia specifica per ogni modalità sensibile o se, invece, sia supermodale, e se si possa dare un passaggio di conoscenza da una modalità all’altra. Il problema di Molyneux investe anche come e fino e che punto il concetto di spazio possa essere sviluppato da persone non vedenti. Più in generale, riguarda l’idea di come la conoscenza concettuale è acquisita e processata quando la vista manca. Questo articolo intende fornire una visione d’insieme che abbraccia i diversi temi legati al problema di Molyenux.

Parole chiave: Molyneux; Multisensorialità; Cecità; Innatismo; Empirismo.

Parole chiave

Molyneux; Multisensory; Blindness; Nativism; Empiricism.

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