Weekly Discussion #15: Molyneux’s problem
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William Molyneux was an Irish natural philosopher and writer on politics. He was a contemporary of John Locke’s and after Locke had written The Essay Concerning Human Understanding Molyneux was very impressed and started a correspondence with Locke. In one of his letters, Molyneux presented Locke with the following thought experiment.
“Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which is the sphere. Suppose then the cube and the sphere placed on a table, and the blind man made to see: query, Whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube? To which the acute and judicious proposer answers: ‘Not. For though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, and how a cube, affects his touch; yet he has not yet attained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so…’”
To summarize Molyneux is asking us to imagine a person who was blind from birth and was taught to distinguish shapes by touch. We then imagine that the shapes are placed before him and his sight is magically restored. Would he be able to distinguish the shapes he had learned by touch, using just his sense of sight?
- Apply Locke’s empiricism and his distinction between primary and secondary qualities to a novel problem.
- Discuss Locke’s epistemology with your peers.
How do you think Locke would answer Molyneux’s question? Explain why Locke would give that answer. What do you personally think the correct answer is and why? (write at least FOUR paragraphs).