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Chevalier de Mérian (1723–1807)

Jean-Bernard (Johann Bernhard) Mérian was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1723 and died in Berlin in 1807. The son of a Protestant minister, Mérian showed an early talent for philosophy, and after several years of moving around Europe, he eventually settled in Berlin in 1748 and made Prussia his adopted home. Through his connections with the Bernoulli family, Mérian curried favour with Maupertuis, then the director of the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Maupertuis procured a pension from Frederick II to secure Mérian’s permanent appointment. For the next half-century, Mérian remained devoted to his institutional home, holding seminars and pursuing his intellectual work there. An early enthusiast of Leibnizian and Wolffian rationalism, Mérian was also one of the first to introduce David Hume’s ideas on the continent. His philosophical history of ‘Molyneux’s problem’, delivered in a series of seminars between 1770 and 1779, constitutes his most lasting claim to posterity. The ‘Molyneux problem’ was a thought experiment proposed to John Locke by his correspondent William Molyneux that asked whether one kept blind and suddenly made to see would be able to spontaneously correlate his newfound sense of sight with his pre-established sense of touch. The excerpt from Mérian’s seminar reproduced in the Cahiers, and introduced in the preceding article by Alain Grosrichard, comes from his eighth and final lesson. It contains his proposal for a state-sponsored experiment whereby children will be taken from their cribs and kept in total darkness throughout their education. Mérian’s conviction is that the moment when they would be made to see would then be an illumination not simply for them, but for the philosophers who witness the consequences of their newfound gift of sight.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Alain Grosrichard, ‘Une expérience psychologique au 18ème siècle’, CpA 2.3 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Chevalier de Merian, ‘Histoire du problème de Molyneux (Huitième mémoire)’, CpA 2.4 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • Mérian, Jean-Bernard. Sur le problème de Molyneux, postface de Francine Markovits, ‘Diderot, Mérian et l’aveugle’. Paris: Flammarion, 1984.
  • Bartolomèss, C. ‘Jean-Bernard Mérian’ in Adolphe Franck, ed.,Dictionnaire des sciences philosophiques [par une société de professeurs et de savants], Troisième tirage, Paris: Hachette, 1885 (1843, 1852, 1875), pp. 1081-1087. Available at: (This entry provides excerpts from and details about Mérian’s various lessons to the Berlin Academy).