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Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan


Letters between Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).

As readers of his autobiography Confessions of a Philosopher will know, Bryan Magee is convinced that our view of reality is inherently limited, in the way postulated by Kant and Schopenhauer. If we had more sensory capabilities than we actually do, he maintains, our understanding of the world would be radically different from what it is. The natural question presents itself: how would it be different? But this is precisely what we can never know. We cannot hope to form any idea of what it is we are missing, precisely because of the limitations on our perception. Perhaps, however, we might be able to gain a better idea of what such limitation involves by exploring the world of people who are born blind. In other words, the experience of blindness might serve as a model for the "blindness" to reality that affects even sighted people: "… the relationship of all of us, all human beings, to those unapprehended dimensions of reality may be similar to the relationship of the congenitally blind to the visual world".

To explore this intriguing idea Magee needed to find a congenitally blind collaborator who was also philosophically sophisticated, and in 1973 he met a lawyer called Rupert Cross who fulfilled the requirements, but Cross died before they could embark on a book. Some years later he had a second chance when he encountered Martin Milligan, a professional philosopher who had been blind from an early age and was unable to remember the experience of seeing. Milligan agreed to collaborate, and this book is the result. Unfortunately, he also died unexpectedly before the correspondence reached its appointed conclusion, but a total of eight long letters was exchanged and this book is the result.

It is perhaps regrettable that the original Magee-Cross collaboration did not take place, because the dialogue with Milligan did not really deal with the issues that Magee had hoped it would and one does not get the impression that there was a great deal of sympathy between the two. Milligan seems to have been a difficult man who had had to struggle against considerable odds to make an academic career for himself in spite of his disability and his underprivileged background. A convinced Marxist, he evidently lived for much of his life in an atmosphere of controversy and discord with those about him; he was unable to find employment for a long time although he did eventually obtain an academic appointment in philosophy at Leeds University.

From the outset Milligan showed little interest in the issues that Magee wanted to discuss. Instead, much of the content of the letters is concerned with argument about how far it is possible for a blind person to form an idea of the sighted world and how big a limitation blindness really is. In broad outline, Magee holds that it is a very great limitation while Milligan thinks that the gap between the sighted and the blind is often considerably exaggerated. He seems somewhat resentful of Magee's attempts to convince him of the vastness of this gap, probably because he thinks it could be taken to justify discrimination against the blind. Once the correspondents get beyond this they embark on moderately technical philosophical interchanges about questions such as whether all knowledge is propositional; these are only peripherally connected with the issue of blindness and its limitations. There is however some interesting material on the nature of a blind person's dreams.

The book is thus something of a failure, at least in terms of what Magee hoped it would achieve. He therefore contributes a ninth letter from himself to the reader, in which he sets forth his basic philosophical position as he would have liked it to emerge if the discussion had proceeded in the manner he anticipated. Although the relevance of blindness to this is fairly slight, it will be of interest to anyone who is sympathetic to Magee's central philosophical preoccupation.

2 April 2003

%T On Blindness
%S Letters between Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan
%A Magee, Bryan
j %A Milligan, Martin
%I Oxford University Press
%C Oxford
%D 1995
%G ISBN 0-19-823543-7
%P xii + 188 pp
%K philosophy

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