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Synopsis of Chevalier de Mérian, ‘Histoire du problème de Molyneux (Huitième Mémoire)’

[‘The History of Molyneux’s Problem (Eighth Lesson)’]

CpA 2.4:115–122

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, becoming a doctor of philosophy at the age of seventeen with a thesis on suicide. After having difficulty procuring a permanent teaching position in Switzerland, Mérian ceded to family pressures and attempted an ecclesiastical career. His religious study led him to spend several years in Lausanne, where he developed his mastery of the French language. Dissatisfied with a life of religious devotion, Mérian moved to Amsterdam, where he lived briefly, continuing his philosophical and scientific education, before eventually making his way to Berlin in 1748 and choosing Prussia as his adopted home. Through his connections with Bernoulli family, Mérian was able to curry 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. In the estimation of one biographer, ‘it would take too much space to enumerate and characterize all the work Mérian undertook for both the private and public sessions of the Berlin Academy; it is enough to say that from the fifth to the last volume of the Mémoires of this institution published in French (1749-1804), there is hardly one which does not contain some contribution from Mérian’.

In his earliest years, Mérian was an enthusiast of Leibnizian philosophy and its greatest eighteenth-century proponent, Christian Wolff. Over the course of his lessons at the Berlin Academy, however, Mérian complemented his critical assessments of Lockean empiricism with an increasingly robust critique of Wolff’s philosophy. Before the success of his philosophical history of Molyneux’s problem, Mérian was best known in Europe for producing one of the earliest translations of Hume in French. The volume of Hume’s ‘Essais philosophiques’, produced at Maupertuis’s request soon after the beginning of Mérian’s tenure at the Academy, would be instrumental in the spread of Hume’s ideas on the continent. In 1793, however, Mérian gave one of his most critical seminars, titled ‘Sur le phénoménisme de David Hume’ [‘On David Hume’s phenomenism’]. Mérian argued that Hume’s reasoning, when pushed to the extreme, led either to a reductio ad absurdum in which phenomena remained inexplicable, or to the positing of a ‘subject, substance, or substratum’ that provided phenomenal manifestation with its differential ground, a ground distinct from appearances. Mérian’s own negative conclusions about Hume laid the ground for his positive assessment of Kantian philosophy in his final lessons at the Academy.

As indicated, Mérian’s most lasting contribution to posterity was his summation of the philosophical history of Molyneux’s problem, delivered in a series of seminars between 1770 and 1779. The text reproduced in this issue of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse is excerpted from Mérian’s eighth and final lesson. In the preceding lessons, Mérian has made clear his preference for Berkeley’s position on the subject, affirming that the only relation between the senses of touch and sight can be one of association. Between sight and touch, one sense will be the sign for the other, depending on which sign is experienced first. As William Paulson has argued, however, Mérian’s option for this solution is belied by his own final lesson, which proposes an experiment that affirms the primacy of the gaze in the constitution of knowledge.

This excerpt begins with Mérian granting the merits of Condillac’s proposal to have any future blind patients who might be made to see placed in a glass cage at the immediate conclusion of the operation. The goal would be to provide a controlled experiment wherein sight and touch could be kept separated; the newly granted sight would be a ‘pure’ one. At the same time, however, Mérian expresses his frustration that such an experiment is unlikely to take place. In the decades since William Cheselden’s successful cataract operation on a boy born blind, another opportunity has not presented itself. That the circumstances for the experiment are themselves rare is compounded by the fact that ‘philosophers are too indolent, not curious enough to seek the means to instruct themselves; they prefer arguing to seeing’ (CpA 2.4:116). Moreover, even those born with cataracts usually have some presentiment of light and dark, if not shape, before they are successfully operated upon. In order to circumvent these barriers, Mérian proposes, ‘let us here give free rein to our imagination’ (116).

Mérian proposes to ‘take children from their cradles and to raise them in the deepest shadows until the age of reason’ (116). Recognizing the shock of this proposal, Mérian notes that it has often been proposed that children be kept isolated and ignorant of the human voice in order to study the origins of language. This was a subject with which Mérian was intimately acquainted, having delivered an extensive response to Herder’s writings on this subject to the Berlin Academy in 1771. The virtue of Mérian’s experimental proposal in this lesson - creating the ‘artificially’ blind, as opposed to waiting for the propitious occasion of one who is ‘naturally’ blind, yet operable - is that the children’s minds would be, ‘so to speak, between our hands, which means we could mould them like a soft wax and successively develop their knowledge as we see fit, taking whatever precautions necessary, and varying the experiences in all imaginable ways’ (117).

Mérian foresees two objections to his proposal, one moral and one physical. As for the physical, there is the fear that, shielded from light, the children might lose their natural capacity for sight altogether. If such were the case, Mérian grants the project would need to be abandoned, being both unjust and useless. A ‘more well-founded’ objection is that it is impossible to totally eliminate light, and that the children’s eyes might develop some sort of refined night vision capacity similar to a cat’s or an owl’s. Mérian notes that this phenomenon has been observed among prisoners confined to the darkness, but that their abilities were most likely conditioned by their previous experience of sight [joui de la vue].

As for the moral objection, Mérian raises the obvious question: who would sacrifice their children to such an enterprise? By way of a response, Mérian first offers that the project is for the betterment of scientific knowledge and thus humanity as a whole. ‘Moreover, the execution of this project [would not be] simply my affair or that of any individual, but rather that of a sovereign or a magistrate invested with public authority’ (118). As for where the children would come from, beyond orphans in the care of the state, Mérian instructs his auditors to look in the city streets: ‘See all these objects of disgust and pity, these cursed, crippled children often rendered irremediably blind by the monsters who call themselves their parents’ (118).

Mérian ultimately presents his experiment in terms of its benefits for the children themselves, who, ‘unburdened by sight, which causes the greatest distractions,’ will be able to develop ‘the most exquisite finesse’ in their sense of touch (119). ‘There, in the shadows and the silence, we would study Nature, we would study ourselves’ (120). Mérian believes he has shown that the benefits outweigh the costs of such an experiment. ‘At bottom, what do they lose? A possession [bien] about which they have no idea, and consequently no desire’ (120).

In the final paragraphs of his lesson, Mérian imagines the moment when the subjects will be made to see after all:

I imagine them immobile with astonishment at the first impression of light, this magnificent being theretofore veiled from sight, and at the variegated play of colours that has light for its inexhaustible source. Once they recover from their surprise and begin to move, how many times will they fall; as sight is joined to touch they will see this light and these colours project themselves into space and illuminate, paint, decorate the earth and the firmament, when little by little they feel the greenery of the fields, the enamel of the prairies, the cheerful empire of Flora moving out of them, as if created before their eyes, and in the distance, they will see the woods, the mountains that restrict their view with their pale shades and terminate the horizon. Raising their eyes, they perceive, extended around them like a glorious pavilion, this azure canopy wherein this star to which they owe the new day that illuminates them shines in all its splendour. And then, in a beautiful night, quite different from the one they have just exited, the moon and the stars will lavish them with their soft and vibrant clarity (121).

‘They discover for us in discovering themselves’ (121-22). Mérian concludes confident that his subjects will ‘thank you with tears of joy’ for this experience, and that had he had the good fortune of such an experience himself, the lesson just given would have been ‘infinitely shorter, and infinitely better’ (122).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:

  • Grosrichard, Alain. ‘Une expérience psychologique au dix-huitème siècle’, CpA 2.3:101-113.

English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • 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:
  • Cousin, Victor. ‘Académie de Berlin - Analyse de deux mémoires de Mérian. M. Ancillon - D’une opinion d’hemsterhuys’ (1816) in Idem., Premiers essays de philosophie, quatrième edition, Paris: Didier & Cie., 1862, pp. 137-158.
  • Herder, Johann Gottfried. Traité sur l’origine de la langue, suivi de l’analyse de Mérian et des textes critiques de Hamann, Pierre Pénisson, ed. Paris: Aubier, 1977.
  • Mérian, Jean-Bernard. Sur le problème de Molyneux, postface de Francine Markovits, ‘Diderot, Mérian et l’aveugle’. Paris: Flammarion, 1984.

Secondary literature:

  • Paulson, William R. Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Blind in France. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
  • Zupancic, Alenka. ‘Philosophers’ Blind Man’s Bluff’ in Renata Salecl and Slavoj Zizek, eds., Gaze and Voice as Love Objects. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 32-58.