The Use and Abuse of Blindness (4)

This is the fourth in a series of posts.

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“Defining Blindness,” Second Case: Blindness Defined

The English word blindness derives immediately, of course, from the English adjective blind, plus the common suffix –ness, denoting quality or state of being. Thus, blindness is the quality or state of being blind. 

However, there is blindness, and then there is blindness.

In Old English blind meant "destitute of sight," but also "dark, enveloped in darkness, obscure; unintelligent, lacking mental perception." 

Persons or other sentient beings can be “blind” or “destitute of sight” in the sense of lacking a physical capacity to see that is normal for their species, as it is for cats, dogs, and Floridians, for example. In turn, some individuals of such normally sighted species may be born blind, that is, born without that normal physical capacity of their species. Others may be struck blind after birth, deprived of that species-normal capacity by post-birth degeneration in some cases, by accidental deprivation in others. 

In contrast, if we say of rocks or other inanimate things, or even of such animate creatures as amoebas or worm or the like, that they are blind, we do not mean that they are, properly speaking, lacking or destitute of the capacity to see. They neither have nor lack that capacity—as Nietzsche says life neither has nor lacks “meaning.” Rather, that capacity simply does not belong to their kind at all. It is only of that which in a significant sense “should” have a capacity that it makes sense, taken strictly, to speak of it “lacking” or being “destitute of” that capacity.

At any rate, blind ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *bhel-, “to shine, flash, burn.” What shines or flashes or burns gives off light, whereby what is there to be seen can be seen. 

So in that ultimate root sense, to be blind means not to offer any passage to sight, to seeing, to exercise of the capacity to see, for whatever has such capacity. It is in such a sense of the word that we still speak of such things as “blind alleys,” and mean alleys that come to an end which permits no further opening upon what lies beyond, no opening beyond that end-point for vision to see what might be visible there, in that beyond. In that meaning, what is “blind” is what obscures or confuses vision, “seeing.”

That, in its own turn, opens a vista upon a broader meaning of sight and seeing than the one confined to a physical capacity such as human beings normally have but rocks and stones do not have—“if you see what I mean.” That is, to “see” may be a purely mental, intellectual matter, having nothing do with the employment of some merely physical ocular apparatus. The “sight” involved may well be in-sight, which is a sort of “seeing” that sees what is not given (and may not even be something that can be given) to be seen with physical eyes—something that can only be grasped mentally, such as the meaning of a word.

There are, after all, many who have eyes, but cannot see.  When they go to the optometrist, they may turn out to have perfect 20-20 vision, but yet remain blind as bats to the things that are most important to see.

Such blindness as that, which has nothing to do with what optometrists can measure or opticians correct, can serve its own purposes—not only for the blind themselves, as Upton Sinclair pointed out (see my preceding post) but also and especially for coercive power, as the blindness of Mayer’s confidant’s son (see my first post of this series) served the purposes of Nazis Germany in the 1930s. 

At the same time, it is worth noting that the same sort of blindness can also serve other, far less selfish or manipulative purposes than are at issue in the cases Sinclair and Mayer present. They can serve entirely positive, even selfless purposes.

 I will consider a case of such positively motivated blindness  in my next post.

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To be continued.