Book Review: Seeing with the Hands, by Mark Paterson (2016)

UPDATE (27th October 2016): the review is now available to read online here:

I recently reviewed Mark Paterson’s Seeing with the Hands for Disability & Society. Given Paterson’s previous work on embodiment I was expecting an historical account of sensorimotor subjectivity (even Paterson’s website goes by the name Instead, I was (pleasantly) surprised to read an authoritatively-written book about the history of blindness and touch in philosophy and literature. For copyright reasons I’ll only post a snippet of the review below, but it’s a book I’m more than happy to recommend to researchers in the field. The review has only just been submitted but I’ll let you know when it is in print.

Seeing with the hands is Mark Paterson’s latest offering in a trilogy of books exploring the role of touch. As the title suggests, the topic of touch is approached in relation to Early Modern articulations of vision and blindness. Through exposition of philosophical and historical texts on touch, sight, and blindness, Paterson documents the emergence of ‘visionist’ culture in Europe over the last 350 years. This gives way to a convincing discussion of how such thinking influenced psychological investigation, technological invention, and contemporary attitudes towards the blind by the sighted, what Paterson refers to as an on-going “fascination with what the blind ‘see’” (p. 3).

Seeing with the hands indirectly presents a history of research on blindness and the positioning of the visually impaired in the research process. For example, early chapters demonstrate a disconnect between philosophy (particularly rationalism) and people with visual impairment: blindness is fetishized and theorized via thought experiments, but blind people themselves are never considered to be authorities of their own experience and hence rarely consulted. In the middle of the book (and the middle of the eighteenth century) we see the emergence of medical experiments to cure the blind (e.g. cataract removal) and a desire by philosophers (such as Diderot) to seek out blind people and inquire about the nature of their experience. Whilst it may be a stretch to label these approaches ‘positivism’ and ‘interpretivism’, the seeds of these research traditions are certainly being sowed.

Seeing with the hands: blindness, vision, and touch after Descartes, by Mark Paterson, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2016, 288pp., £19.99 (paperback) ISBN 978-1-4744-0532-4

(Pictured: my son, Caleb, “working like Daddy”.)