Seeing and not-seeing suggest a confusion between seeing metaphorically and seeing literally. This confusion manifests in writings about poetical/critical seeing either in the mind’s eye or in the real eye. As epistemological questions circle around the senses in the wake of empiricism the concept of seeing literally becomes more important and the metaphorics of blindness more complicated.
By examining the blind man in an age when the evidence of the senses, particularly sight, increases in importance, one finds a radical shift in ideology. The blind man, as an empirical specimen rather than a potential site for divine inspiration, deprives the Platonic ideal of meaning. In his blindness, and in the way in which he is read through the eighteenth century, Milton represents both the poet/prophet and the specimen of empirical inquiry.
For certain early modern critics, such as Addison, the way to understand art and society is through the senses. However, by the middle of the eighteenth century, Burke turns again to the blind man and says something quite different than had been said before. He will empty vision of empirical sight, and he will cite real blind men as evidence for the possibility of describing the visible world without the means of sight. For Burke the vastness of augmented sight – microscopic and telescopic – suggest the sublime, but for others particularly Swift and Pope, the microscopic eye suggests a kind of too-much of seeing that is not unrelated to blindness itself. Lastly, I consider Samuel Johnson and his forty-year friendship with the blind lady Anna Williams, which at times suggests that his existential fears of death and doubts regarding Christianity are intimately bound up with the weightiest metaphorics of blindness.