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"The Molyneux Problem" in Galdós's Marianela

From: Anales Galdosianos
Volume 46, 2011
pp. 47-65 | 10.1353/ang.2011.0008

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On the Origin of the Query

On the seventh of July of 1688, an Irish surgeon by the name of William Molyneux (1656-1698) penned a letter to the famed English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704). In his missive, the writer included a problem for the recipient's consideration which he expressed as follows:

A Problem Proposed to the Author of the Essai Philosophique concernant L'Entendement [:] A Man, being born blind, and having a Globe and a Cube, nigh of the same bigness, Committed into his Hands, and being taught or Told, which is Called the Globe, and which the Cube, so as easily to distinguish them by his Touch or Feeling; Then both being taken from Him, and Laid on a Table, Let us Suppose his Sight Restored to Him; Whether he Could, by his Sight, and before he touch them, know which is the Globe and which the Cube? Or Whether he Could know by his Sight, before he stretch'd out his Hand, whether he Could not Reach them, tho they were Removed 20 or 1000 feet from Him? If the Learned and Ingenious Author of the Forementiond Treatise think this Problem Worth his Consideration and Answer, He may at any time Direct it to One that Much Esteems him, and is, His Humble Servant William Molyneux High Ormonds Gate in Dublin. Ireland.

("Molyneux's Problem")

A most fascinating question. So fascinating, in fact, that it would be treated for the next two hundred years—in one form or another—by the day's leading philosophical lights, as John W. Davis relates: "Because of its theoretical significance the problem was discussed by some of the most eminent thinkers of the 18th century including Locke, Berkeley, Leibniz, Voltaire, Diderot and Condillac [...] appearing full blown as a subject of occasional comment throughout the 19th century [...]" (392). And it was not just philosophers—natural or otherwise—who felt themselves drawn to the question. Writers of fiction were similarly attracted by the scenario, playing it out (or permutations thereof) within the confines of their created worlds. As Davis remarks: "The Molyneux Problem [was] one of the main sources of the conceit of the blind man so popular in 18th century literature [...]" (392).

It is the intersection of philosophy and literature that represents the primary focus of the present study—something which should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has read and reflected upon the works of Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920). To be sure, Galdós's writings are filled with dazzling complexities, intricate ironies and, yes, philosophical problems. Sherman Eoff, for one, makes this quite plain in his The Novels of Pérez Galdós, where he declares: "[...] there is no question that he had a philosophical mind [...]" (131); and "[i]n some of Galdós' later novels especially, the philosophical theme forms a basic element of the psychological plot [...]" (131). Marianela (1878) is just one illustration of the depth of the author's "philosophical mind" even with its episodes of melodrama and moments of heightened sentimentality. Indeed, among other things, critics have identified in this work an affirmation of Auguste Comte's (1798-1857) positivistic perspective (Joaquín Casalduero), a refutation of the Comtean outlook and a concomitant stress on the limits of the empirical approach to reality (Sherman Eoff), and an expression of Platonic idealism (Mario Ruíz).

In this study, we will consider what Galdós's "philosophical" (or more specifically, epistemological) position in Marianela might have been. However, in order to do so, we will need to approach the work indirectly; through a consideration of a question that has received surprisingly little attention in the critical literature up to this point: i.e., that posed by William Molyneux in his aforementioned 1688 letter to Locke. It is our hope that by considering this question, noting its solutions and, what is more, clearly laying out the ramifications of such solutions, we shall be better prepared to appreciate Galdós's own answer to the Molyneux problem and thus to comprehend what his answer has to say about related issues, such as the author's position on Comte, Plato and...

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