Do One-Eyed Rule Blind?

A 1904 H.G. Wells short story, “Country of the Blind“, questioned the old proverb “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” In the story, a sighted man stumbles into a long isolated mountain valley where where everyone has been blind for generations, and have adapted their social customs and other senses to being blind.  This new man assumes he will soon be king, but to the locals he seems incompetent:

They thrust him suddenly through a doorway into a room as black as pitch, save at the end there faintly glowed a fire. The crowd closed in behind him and shut out all but the faintest glimmer of day, and before he could arrest himself he had fallen headlong over the feet of a seated man. His arm, outflung, struck the face of someone else as he went down.

His attempts to prove he can see things they cannot go badly.  He underestimates what they can sense via sound:

He would show these people once and for all what sight would do for a man. They would seek him, but not find him.
“You move not, Bogota,” said the voice.
He laughed noiselessly and made two stealthy steps aside from the path.
“Trample not on the grass, Bogota; that is not allowed.”
Nunez had scarcely heard the sound he made himself. He stopped, amazed.

He also miss-specifies a test he offers to pass:

He induced them to let him go a long way up the sloping meadows towards the wall with one complaisant individual, and to him he promised to describe all that happened among the houses. He noted certain goings and comings, but the things that really seemed to signify to these people happened inside of or behind the windowless houses–the only things they took note of to test him by–and of those he could see or tell nothing.

The claim isn’t that a person with a powerful new insight could never prove it to others. Rather, the point is that someone with a new insight could easily fail by arrogance, assuming his insight offers more than it does, and underestimating what can be done, and how things look, without it.

The sighted person in this story could have succeeded by carefully mastering the usual skills and practices of the blind, and then carefully seeking simple clear ways to show how his new ability could give advantage, in the context of their usual practices.  Assuming instead that your new insight excuses you from the need to follow the usual social paths, or to learn the usual insights and skills of your chosen area, is a recipe for failure.

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  • Luke G.

    Ah! I read this story years ago and it stuck with me. I didn’t remember the title, the author, or the year but I’ve always thought of it whenever someone brought up the “one-eyed man” proverb.

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  • Indy

    … and then there came a great tempest with fierce, freezing, turning winds which scattered the contents of their storehouses, along with torrents of sleeting rains, which covered the land, and much of these items with layers of smooth ice.

    … and all of sudden the sighted man’s vision became *impossibly valuable*. The citizens of the blind mountain had no choice but to crawl on their hands and knees in spirals (the quickest searching method) and spread their hands frantically searching for enough morsels of food to prevent outright starvation. The way was perilous and slippery and one had little to no warning of where a false step could lead to a crash on rocks and death, or perhaps to step or grab upon the millions of new sharp and splitter obstacles all around.”

    … but the visitor, without crouching an inch, and without walking a foot, could tell them everything. Not only did he know – and almost instantly, at one of his mere “glances” from high ground (an almost meaningless bit of terrain for the enhanced senses of the blind) – where everything could be found, but he could almost run to each item, so keenly was he aware of the safest pathway.

    … and if the blind has but imagined this circumstance – that is – to merely consider the clearly foreseeable and risky situations that are an inherent incident of their lives and part of their “context” which they can not ‘adapt’ away – and to further consider the value of the stranger’s strange gifts in that circumstance – they may very well have made him – if not “king” – then “most high guardian of the welfare of our community” or at least a well-remunerated public servant of some sort.

    … but they lacked the sufficient imagination to recognize the clear windfall of the arrival of the stranger. It was in this way that they were truly … blind …

    • Daniel

      Hi Indy,

      I don’t know if you even remember having made this comment, since it was 4 years ago, or if you will even see this, but I just wanted to reply to you anyway. I believe this is your own addition, or “fan-fiction,” to the original story by H. G. Wells, and I think it is very well and cleverly written, and I enjoyed reading it a lot. I could almost believe it was part of the original story itself, it is a great continuation/ending to it. I really liked how you thought of how Nunez would have been able to prove his prowess, and the utility of sight compared to other senses, and were able to point out the flaws in the blind men’s “mastery” of their senses. Props on the writing and thinking!

  • Aron

    Yeah yeah but intelligence is different than vision. Don’t you see?

  • Indy

    Isn’t it interesting that almost all our words describing thinking about the future involve visual perception?

    1. To foresee / Foreseeable
    2. Imagine / Imagination (image).
    3. I have a vision, company vision, strategic vision.
    4. Insight for special comprehension.
    5. And “I see what you mean” for “I comprehend” (though, sometimes, “I hear you, bro.” for both “I understand and agree/sympathize”)
    6. Or “to regard” something is to consider something as having a certain quality.
    7. “To Reflect” on something is to think about it, but not “to echo”
    8. Even “observation” is presumed to refer to the visual sense unless there is further context, but also “to observe the rules” is to follow and obey.

    I suppose all of these *could* be replaced with words of abstract sensing “perceive” or other dominant / priority senses, but it seems quire unnatural. Even a blind-from-birth man I know uses these sight-related words “naturally”.

    Is this true for other / all / most languages? Is this purely cultural, or is there an inherent default universal human semantics way of thinking and speaking in this way?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Good, thought provoking post.