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History of Philosophy Quarterly

Volume 29, Number 3, July 2012


Brian Glenney

G ottfried Leibniz interposes William Molyneuxs question within his

New Essays on Human Understanding:1
Suppose a Man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch
to distinguish between a Cube, and a Sphere of the same metal, and
nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and tother,
which is the Cube, which the Sphere. Suppose then the Cube and
Sphere placed on a Table, and the Blind Man to be made to see. Qure,
Whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distin-
guish, and tell, which is the Globe, which the Cube.2 (RB II.ix.8, 137)
Its prior publication in John Lockes Essay included not replies, both
by the questions author Molyneux and Locke himself.3 Leibniz, however,
replied yes for reasons yet to be directly discussed with any depth, a
lacuna this paper seeks to address.
Leibniz likely appropriated this problem for his own design.4 It may
have served as a test case for his favored shape projection example
of his isomorphic modeling thesis,5 the claim that the mind generates
mental models constituted out of isomorphic mappings of objectsout of
one-to-one correlations of an objects structural features.6 If commenta-
tors are to be believed, Leibnizs thoughts in reply may have run in the
following manner: Shape representations, whether generated by touch
or sight, isomorphically map onto the shapes being perceived, giving the
tactile and visual representations a common structure, thereby providing
a common feature for the once-blind to recognize the shapes, perhaps
with some rational exertion.7 The central assertion of this paper, however,
is that Leibnizs answer could not have utilized tactile and visual repre-
sentations alone as sufficient for this task. Rather, Leibnizs reply and
a few of his other writings indicate that innate common-sensible shape
representations are necessary.8 In the right conditions, I argue, these
common representations are triggered by sensory experiences of either
sight or touch and rise to conscious awareness, serving the recognition
abilities of shape identification of even those who were once blind.


While filling a gap in Leibniz scholarship, this paper takes into consid-
eration three further issues in Leibnizs account of perception: whether
perceptual representations are a species of thought, how perceptual
representations are employed in their task of relating the perceiver to
the external world, and how and to what degree perceptual learning
influences perceptual representations. This paper should also be of
interest to those concerned with how perceptual representations are
integrated, a topic known today as cross-modal integration.9 I begin
with a critical issue for any representationalist account that incorporates
distinct kinds of representation, the ambiguity of recruitment strategies
for identifying objects in novel sensory formats such as the one faced by
Molyneuxs once-blind subject.

1. Problems Theoretical and Textual

Though all Leibnizian representations are metaphysically on a con-
tinuum, a sort of fractal structure of parts within parts,10 they are
also distinguishable by their availability to conscious awareness and/or
discursive thought.11 A first category is of Petites Perceptions, which are
persistently obscure and confused like the liquid droplets that constitute
a wave (RB Preface, 54), unavailable to conscious awareness and thus
inapplicable to reflective consideration. A second category of representa-
tions are clear, available to consciousness, but their structural features
are indistinct or confused, so not applicable in discursive thought. Color
representations, writes Leibniz, are vivid in the aggregate but confused
as to the parts (RB Preface, 56). Having no distinguishing marks, the
phenomenal character of a color, or what it is like in experience alone,
serves as its distinguishing mark. One cannot locate within the color
green, for example, its constitutive colors blue and yellow (RB IV.vi.7,
403). A third category of representation is clear and distinct. Such
representations, like those of shape, are both consciously apparent and
have a structure that is available to analysis and description because
distinguishing marks, such as geometrical features, are present to mind.
Figure 1 summarizes Leibnizs categories of representation.
An initial predicament for Leibnizs categories of representation
concerns the type of representation recruited when perceiving objects.
Perceiving a tomato might involve either sensory representations (bot-
tom left box, Figure 1)representations acquired and distinguished
by the sensory modalities in which they are presented, like the mental
representations of red or of smoothnessor common representations
(top left box, Figure 1) like those of roundness or number.12 In particu-
lar, it is not obvious which type of representation might be recruited to
recognize a shape familiar to touch but presented to the new sight of
the once-blind. In identifying a cube by sight for the first time, would a

Categories of Is the representation clear to conscious

Representations experience?

Does the Yes No

representation Clear and distinct
have Yes representations X
consciously (e.g., shape)
Clear and confused Unconscious
No representations representations
(e.g., color) (e.g., Petites
features? Perceptions)

Figure 1.

sensory representation specific to touch be recruited, one that expressed

the seen edges? Or would a common representation that was indifferent
to its mode of sensory presentation be recruiteda geometrical property
of the shape for instance? This recruitment problem seems not to have
been recognized by Leibniz, but presents a theoretical ambiguity for his
representational account of the mind and for interpreting his reply to
Molyneuxs question.
This predicament is made worse by Leibnizs own ambiguous discus-
sion in his reply, as he fails to specify which type of representation the
once-blind might recruit. Worse still, the role the recruited represen-
tation serves in the recognition of shape is unclear: at times, Leibniz
suggests that it serves consciously reflective recognition (RB II.ix.8,
137RP passage below) and, at others, unconscious processes (AG
187, letter to Queen Sophie Charlotte, 1702). This textual predicament
is particularly vicious within a single paragraph of Leibnizs reply (RB
II.ix.8, 137), which seems to display three distinct strategies that the
once-blind might employ to recognize the shapes:13
Rational-Principles Passage (RP):14
[I]t seems to me past doubt that the blind man whose sight is restored
could discern them by applying rational principles to the sensory
knowledge which he has already acquired by touch. (RB II.ix.8, 137)
Same-Structure Passage (SS):
My view rests on the fact that in the case of the sphere there are no
distinguished points on the surface of the sphere taken in itself, since
everything is uniform and without angles, whereas in the case of
the cube there are eight points which are distinguished from all the
others. If there were not this way of discerning shapes, a blind man

could not learn them by sight without touch, nor could someone else
learn them by sight without touch. (RB II.ix.8, 137)
Same-Representations Passage (SR):
These two geometries, the blind mans and the paralytics, must come
together, and agree, and indeed ultimately rest on the same ideas,
even though they have no images in common. Which shows yet again
how essential it is to distinguish images from exact ideas which are
composed of definitions. (RB II.ix.8, 137)

SR suggests that the ability to recognize the shapes is to ultimately rest

on the same ideas. I take this to mean that representations common
to different senses, like the geometrical features of shape, are recruited
by the once-blind to recognize the shapes. The recruitment of common
geometrical features is also indicated by the SS passage, but with refer-
ence to the recruitment of sensory representationstouch-based and
sight-based representations, respectivelythat, though not common to
both senses, share the same structure. Just how similar the structures
of these representations are is called into further question by the RP
passage, which suggests that some reflection on shape geometry would
have to be performed on the sensory shape representations gained by
touch to the visual portrayal of the shapes.
The recruitment problem of Leibnizs categories of representation and
the elusive nature of his own affirmative reply to Molyneuxs question
provoke two interpretive questions:
Q1: Does the once-blind recruit sensory representations?
Q2: Does the once-blind access representations by conscious
These questions have been considered by other commentators and provide
a strategy for distinguishing between interpretations of Leibnizs reply.

2. Interpretations of Leibnizs Answer

Three possible yes/no answers to these questions constitute, to my mind,
the live interpretive options for how one might understand Leibnizs
answer.15 These choices, portrayed in Figure 2, are discussed in some
detail below.

Work-It-Out View
As suggested above, the RP and SS passages combine to provide a
coherent interpretation of Leibnizs answer: the once-blind recruit
the touch-based representations of shape and rationally work out the
shared structure to determine which visually presented shape is which.

Interpretations of Q1: Does the once-blind recruit

Leibnizs reply sensory representations?

Yes No
Q2: Does the
once-blind access Work-it-out View
representations (RP) X
by conscious
Mutual Common Sense
No Translation View (SR)
View (SS)
Figure 2.

This is the view advocated by Gareth Evans in his influential paper on

Molyneuxs question:
The connection between tangible square and visible square can be
worked out, given the information that there is some correspondence
between them, from the formal (mathematical) features which con-
cepts of the two kinds can share.16
James van Cleve follows Evanss interpretative view.17 Alessandra
Jacomuzzi, Pietro Kobau, and Nicola Bruno recommend this view in-
Leibniz espoused nativism, rejected common sensibles, but favored a
positive answer to Molyneuxs question on grounds of a rationalistic
epistemology. Even if there are no common sensibles, he claimed,
the formerly blind individual might be able to understand, from
logical and geometrical reasoning, that certain haptic features such
as roundness or sharp edges are the same in the haptic and visual
Evanss and Jacomuzzi et al.s view is dependent on the inferential
ability of the once-blind, an interpretation that draws from a Kantian
interpretation of Leibniz that views his account of perception as a species
of thought.19 In addition, this work-it-out interpretation includes the
aforementioned feature that all shape concepts are sensory, specific
to sight and touch. As Evans stresses, Leibnizs qualified affirmative
answer shows him to be an adherent of a version of B[erkeley]s posi-
tion. ... [O]ne [sensory representation] represents the other, rather than
being both instances of a common concept.20
I understand the general argument for the work-it-out view as follows:
(1) Leibnizian sensory representations possess shared, conscious-
ly accessible structural features.

(2) Shared, consciously accessible structural features are ratio-

nally discovered.
(3) Rationally discovered structural features are sufficient for
shape recognition.
(4) So, Leibnizian sensory representations are sufficient for shape
It is also worth noting that this interpretative stance is consistent with
Leibnizs rationalism, wherein principles of reason garner the most at-
tention in resolving philosophical problems. Yet, as will be argued below,
such principles cannot be applied to sensory concepts.

Mutual-Translation View
In his study of Leibnizs philosophy of mind, Robert McRae briefly dis-
cusses Leibnizs answer to Molyneuxs question:
Leibniz is less interested in whether the man could solve the problem
than in the exact correlations which must hold between the visual
and tactile appearances, for however dissimilar qualitatively the ap-
pearances, both are expressions of the same thing and therefore must
be mutually translatable by the perceiver.21
McRaes analysis sets Leibnizs answer to Molyneuxs question in a
backdrop of how different expressions are mutually translatable:
However dissimilar qualitatively the appearances, both are expres-
sions of the same thing and therefore must be mutually translatable
by the perceiver. A consequence of this possibility is that any two
different expressions will have the same relation to one another that
each has to the thing which they both express.22
The main support for the mutual translation of expressions or repre-
sentations is passages where Leibniz uses examples of corresponding
geometrical expressions of the same shape:
The projections in perspective of the conic sections of the circle show
that one and the same circle may be represented by an ellipse, a pa-
rabola, and a hyperbola, and even by another circle, a straight line
and a point. (T, 357)23
McRaes account appears to answer only Q1 regarding the nature of
the representations recruited by the perceiver. However, he adds in
his general account of Leibnizs theory of perception that the mutually
translatable structure of shape representations precludes the need
for intellectual effort; the sensory representations of the shapes will
just be available to the perceiver for use in any of the sensory formats

[S]ince perception is the expression of multiplicity in the unity of

the perceiving subject, the awareness of the perception of something
would include the awareness of the unity of the expression in the
McRaes argument can be understood as follows:
(A) Shape recognition by more than one sense modality requires
accessing representations from other sense modalities.
(B) Sensory representations possess accessible, mutually trans-
latable structural features.
(C) So, sensory representations are sufficient for shape recogni-
McRaes mutual-translation view is a second alternative interpretation
with broad textual support. Yet, in addition to having some internal
inconsistencies,25 it may not be the best way to understand Leibnizs
reply to Molyneuxs question as will be argued below.

The Common-sense View

A final viable interpretation claims that Leibnizs answer depends on
the minds accessing common representations by a nonrational process.
To recognize the visually presented shapes, the newly sighted implicitly
recruits innate representations of shape common to sight and touch by
the faculty of common sense. Leibniz makes few references to a faculty
of common sense and never fully discloses the process by which it func-
tions. However, several passages indicate that this faculty is involved in
the perception of shapes when had by more than one sensory modality.
In a section that just precedes the discussion of Molyneuxs question,
Leibniz writes that the common sense is employed when ideas of shape,
or figure, are at issue:
These ideas which are said to come from more than one sensesuch
as those of space, figure, motion, restcome rather from the common
sense, that is, from the mind itself; for they are ideas of pure under-
standing (though ones which relate to the external world and which
the senses make us perceive), and so they admit of definitions and of
demonstrations. (RB II.v, 135)
In addition, at the time Leibniz was composing his New Essays, he wrote
to Queen Sophie regarding this same faculty:
[S]ince our soul compares the numbers and shapes that are in color,
for example, with the numbers and shapes that are in tactile qualites,
there must be an internal sense in which the perceptions of these dif-
ferent external senses are found united. This is called imagination,

which contains both the notions of particular senses, which are clear
but confused, and the notions of the common sense, which are clear
and distinct. (AG 187, letter to Queen Sophie Charlotte, 1702)
These passages, together with the SR passage, which suggests that a
common representation is recruited for shape recognition, offer a viable
textual case for the plausibility of the common-sense view of Leibnizs
answer. In answer to Q1, common representations, available at birth,26
avail recognition capability once they are triggered by the senses. The
manner in which the newly sighted access these concepts, the concern
of Q2, requires an understanding of how the faculty of common sense
functions, which I briefly discuss in the conclusion to this paper, and
whether it requires the conscious use of reason. Regarding the latter
point, in the letter to Queen Sophie, Leibniz claims that common sense
is an unconscious use of imagination, wherein representations related
to different sense modalities are found united by an internal sense
... called the imagination. In light of this passage the common-sense
view sponsors a nonrational, unconscious process for accessing common
representations. This view will be substantially developed below after
assessing the viability of its competitors.

3. A Problem for Sensory Representations of Shape

The work-it-out and the mutual-translation views suffer from a sig-
nificant problem: both claim that the newly sighted must recruit
sensory-specific representations for recognition of the shapes presented
to sight when the crucial structural features of sensory representations
are not accessible to conscious awareness and so cannot be used for
shape recognition. As Leibniz writes:
[A]n idea can be at once clear and confused, as are the ideas of sensible
qualities which are associated with particular organs, e.g. the ideas of
colour and of warmth. They are clear, because we recognize them and
easily tell them from one another; but they are not distinct, because
we cannot distinguish their contents. (RB II.xxix.1, 255)
Sensory representations, while clear, are confused and provide no struc-
tural information and, hence, are not accessible to reason:
As for confused ideas or rather imagesor impressions if you pre-
fersuch as colours, tastes and so on ... the role of these impressions
is to provide us with natural inclinations, and to provide a ground-
ing for observations of experience, rather than furnish materials for
reasoning. (RB IV.xvii.13, 487)
Leibniz provides a perplexing example of this category of representa-
tion; were we to know all there is about the sensory representation of

the color green, we are quite unable to discern the ideas of blue and
yellow within our sensory idea of green, simply because it is a confused
idea (RB IV.vi.7, 403). According to Leibniz, sensory representations
appear to have no content available to consciousness, much less rational
exertion. This is problematic for premise (1) of the work-it-out view and
premise (B) of the mutual-translation view. The argument against these
premises is as follows:
a. Sensory representations are clear and confused.
b. Clear and confused representations do not share consciously
accessible structural features.
c. So, sensory representations do not possess shared consciously
accessible structural features. (~1 and ~B)
As the quotes above suggest, there is strong textual support for each of
the premises above. In addition, having no accessible structural features,
it is not at all clear what to make of a Leibnizian sensory representation
of shape. At best, visually presented shapes are mere sensations with
no coherent spatiality, a multiform patchwork of colors with a confused
structure opaque to analysis. The sensory representations of shape spe-
cific to touch are similarly opaque in structure and would not provide a
basis for shape recognition.
This is not to say that the blind cannot possess shape representations,
for Leibniz himself suggests that the blind can, in fact, learn geometry.
In a passage immediately preceding SS, he writes:
If there werent that way of recognising shapes, a blind man couldnt
learn the rudiments of geometry by touch, nor could a sighted person
learn them by sight without touch. However, we find that men born
blind can learn geometry, and indeed always have some rudiments of
a natural geometry; and we find that geometry is mostly learned by
sight alone without employing touch, as must be done by a paralytic
or by anyone else to whom touch is virtually denied. (RB II.ix.8, 137)
It appears that, for Leibniz, the blind possess representations of shape
that are not sensory but are, rather, founded on geometrical knowledge.
But, according to the work-it-out and interchangeability views, such
representations are not recruited for shape recognition. How might
sensory representations enjoy accessible structural features for Leibniz?

4. Sensory Representations of Shape: A Response

One possible response for the work-it-out and mutual-translation views
is to specify that the once-blind subject be a practiced perceiver and
amend premise b of the objection above to say: clear and confused

representations do share consciously available structural features for

practiced perceivers. Leibniz suggests such a move when he writes in
a later passage:
The fact is that a labourer or an engineer, perhaps knowing little
enough of the nature of the figures, may have an advantage over a
great geometrician in being able to tell them apart just by looking and
without counting. ... [T]his empirics kind of knowledge, this clear
image that one may have a regular ten-sided figure ... this accurate
sense that one may have of themconsists merely in a confused idea:
it does not serve to reveal the nature and properties of the figure or
the weight; that requires a distinct idea. (RB II.xxix.13, 26162)
The case of the practiced perceiver seems to allow conscious access to the
structural content of clear and confused Leibnizian representations. This
interpretation supports Leibnizs added caveat to his answer to Moly-
neuxs question, that only the rudiments of geometry are learned when
experiences are had by only a single sense, even by a practiced perceiver.
This suggestion, however, cannot be applied to the case of the once-
blind who is decidedly not a practiced perceiver. The visual experiences
of the once-blind must be confused, at best like connected color patches.
So, there are no shared structural features of sensory shape representa-
tions accessible at first sight by the once-blind. This description aligns
with Leibnizs understanding of the blind to exist in a deficient state.
For Leibniz agreed with Lockes view that unpracticed perceivers, like
infants, see spheres as of a flat circle variously shadowed and lighted
(RB II.ix.8, 134). The structural features of the shapes cannot be made
consciously available to the once-blind. Thus, no amount of rational
exertion, as the work-it-out view would have it, or of an implicit mutual
translation of these structures, will provide a basis for recognition by
the newly sighted.
There is another possible strategy of response for the work-it-out
view alone. While the newly sighted may not be experientially practiced
perceivers, some kind of rational preparation might provide a basis
for recognition. If the newly sighted possessed optical knowledge, for
instance, they might rationally access shared structural features in the
confused color patches. The once-blind may be, for instance, an artist,
familiar with Desargues rules of hue and shading. Leibniz discussed
the importance of such knowledge for interpreting paintings just before
introducing Molyneuxs question:
[T]his is how a painting can deceive us, by means of an artful use
of perspective. ... But ... a drawing, unaided by shading, cannot
distinguish definitely between a flat circular surface and a spherical

surfacesince neither contains any distinct points or distinguishing

featuresand yet there is a great difference between them which
ought to be marked. That is why M. Desargues has offered rules about
the effects of hue and shading. (RB II.ix.8, 135)
Optical knowledge might prepare the once-blind for the recognition task
demanded by Molyneuxs question.
Additional support for this response comes from the fact that Leibniz
is careful to add a condition to his affirmative answer, that the newly
sighted be accustomed and not dazzled by his novel visual experi-
ences of the shape:
I am not talking about what [the newly sighted] might actually do on
the spot, when he is dazzled and confused by the strangenessor, one
should add, unaccustomed to making inferences. (RB II.ix.8, 13637)
It could be that this artists knowledge was prefaced as part of the rep-
ertoire of the newly sighted so they might be accustomed to making
inferences about perceptory phenomena that employed optical rules
of perspective.
A further, more infamous added condition strengthens this amended
work-it-out view: that the once-blind be told which shapes were being
presented before his eyes (RB II.ix.8, 136). Evans himself counted this
condition as further evidence that Leibniz meant for the once-blind to
recruit sensory representations in his recognition of the shapes:
[The amendment] suggests that in the absence of instruction, the
newly sighted man might enjoy visual experiences of squares and
circles without being put in mind of the shapes discernible by touch
at all. Hence, Leibnizs qualified affirmative answer shows him to be
an adherent of a version of B[erkeley]s position.27
These passages provide grounds for an amended and revised work-it-
out argument:
(1*) Leibnizian sensory representations possess shared conscious-
ly accessible structural features if perceived by practiced
perceivers with knowledge of optics.
(2*) Shared consciously accessible structural features are ratio-
nally discovered with instruction as to which shapes are being
presented visually.
(3) Rationally discovered structural features are sufficient for
shape recognition.
(4) So, Leibnizian sensory representations are sufficient for
shape recognition.

While the mutual-translation view seems untenable, this revised and

amended work-it-out view has the appearance of being a live option for
how to read Leibnizs reply.

5. Problems with External Bodies

Had Leibniz ended his answer with the passages discussed above, there
would be little evidence to adjudicate between the common-sense and the
amended work-it-out interpretations. However, a second half of Leibnizs
discussion presents evidence that is wholly supportive of the view that
common representations must be recruited by the newly sighted for their
recognition of the shapes by sight alone. There, Leibniz discusses the fact
that representations used for recognition must possess distinguishing
features of external bodies.28 And since only clear and distinct represen-
tations possess distinguishing features that are accessible to conscious
reflection, required for defining the newly seen shapes as external bodies,
their recruitment is necessary for recognizing the shapes. The following
External Bodies (EB) passage suggests this requirement:
I reply that he will know which is which if he is told that, of the two
appearances or perceptions he has of them, one belongs to the sphere
and the other to the cube. But if he is not thus instructed in advance, I
grant that it will not at once occur to him that these paintings of them
(as it were) that he forms at the back of his eyes, which could come
from a flat painting on the table, represent bodies. (RB II.ix.8, 138)
According to Leibnizs full-bodied answer, the newly sighted must be able
to distinguish between real and mere external representations of shapes
to recognize the shapes by sight alone. Only common representations
that are clear and distinct avail the structural properties requisite for
knowing that the shapes before ones eyes are, in fact, of external bod-
ies. In addition, these clear and distinct representations must be cued
by perception, rather than mere conception, as Leibniz intimates early
in his thought: Just as being is revealed through a distinct concept,
however, so existence is revealed through a distinct perception (L 363,
On The Method of Distinguishing Real from Imaginary Phenomena).29
The external-bodies argument against the work-it-out view is stated
more formally as follows:
(1) Shape representations acquaint the perceiver with knowledge
that real external bodies are being perceived.
(2) Knowledge that real external bodies are being perceived is
necessary for shape recognition.
(3) Rationally discovered shared and accessible structural
features of sensory representations do not acquaint the

perceiver with knowledge that real external bodies are being

(4) So, rationally discovered shared and accessible structural fea-
tures of sensory representations are not sufficient for shape
I take the EB passage as support for premise (1). Premise (2) might
seem unreasonable; does EB really suggest that the newly sighted need
be attuned to the full-bodied externality of the objects being recognized,
particularly in view of Leibnizs phenomenalism? Yes. As we examine
the fuller EB passage, we read Leibniz continually calling for the ability
to distinguish between the real and represented:
That will occur to him only when he becomes convinced of it by the
sense of touch or when he comes, through applying principles of optics
to the light rays, to understand from the evidence of the lights and
shadows that there is something blocking the rays and that it must
be precisely the same thing that resists his touch. He will eventually
come to understand this when he sees the sphere and cube rolling,
with consequent changes in their appearances and in the shadows
they cast; or when, with the two bodies remaining still, the source of
the light falling on them is moved or the position of his eyes changes.
For these are pretty much the means that we do have for distinguish-
ing at a distance between a picture or perspective representing an
object and the real object. (RB II.ix.8, 138)
According to these concluding passages, recognition of seen shapes re-
quires recognizing them as the same as those touchedas real or solid
or whatever criteria for externality Leibniz might have had in mind.
These passages also suggest that Leibnizs amendment to Molyneuxs
question implied the opposite to that offered by Evanss interpretation:
the once-blind should be told which shapes are before his eyes so that he
knows that the shapes are, in fact, real.30 If the once-blind was not given
the hint about which shapes are before his eyes or given the opportunity
to discover for himself through touch or occluding the shapes from sight
or walking around them, he might recruit mere sensory representations
and thereby fail to recognize the shapes as of the same external bodies
as those made familiar by touch. This resolves the ambiguity problem of
which representation to recruit in novel sensory conditions and further
suggests that the perceptual experience is not unified by mental exertion
for Leibniz but is, rather, found to be unified in conscious experience.

6. Conclusion
As suggested in the introduction to this paper, Leibnizs affirmative reply
to Molyneuxs question is located within a discussion of the isomorphic

mapping thesis, where his favored example of shape projection is pre-

sented, suggesting that his reply serves as a test case for this example.
The interpretive views of Evans and McRae both support this reading,
where the visual- and tactile-shape representations isomorphically
map onto the shapes being perceived, providing a common structure
that allows the once-blind to recognize the shapes. The common-sense
interpretation advocated here, however, is discomfiting in this regard,
as it concludes that common representations are recruited for shape
recognition by the once-blind. A concluding question presents itself: does
the common-sense view of Leibnizs reply to Molyneuxs question favor
this isomorphic mapping thesis?
Rather than serving as a test case, Leibnizs affirmative reply may
be a development of his isomorphic mapping thesis. A theory about the
contents of the mind becomes a theory about the process by which sen-
sory representations are utilized by the faculty of imagination to trigger
common representations. This point is made more plausible when again
considering Leibnizs letter to Queen Sophie Charlotte in the context of
his reply: This is called imagination, which contains both the notions
of particular senses, which are clear but confused, and the notions of the
common sense, which are clear and distinct (AG 187, letter to Queen
Sophie Charlotte, 1702). The function of the imagination when dedicated
to perception involves the discovery of commonalities between different
sensory representations. Presumably, this discovery does not invoke
conscious inference, as the imagination is described as a kind of inner
sense. This sense is specific to common properties of sensory representa-
tions much like vision is specific to color, as is suggested by Leibniz in his
continued discussion of the function of this internal sense:
Therefore, since our soul compares the numbers and shapes that are
in color, for example, with the numbers and shapes that are in tactile
qualities, there must be an internal sense in which the perceptions of
these different external senses are found united. ... We see that par-
ticular sensible qualities are capable of being explained and reasoned
about only insofar as they contain what is common to the objects of
several external senses, and belong to the internal sense. (AG 187,
letter to Queen Sophie Charlotte, 1702)
As this passage suggests, the objects of the imaginationwhat the
imagination is sensingare sensory representations. These form the
basis for triggering the related (innate) common representations. We
have an inner sense of a cube shape, for instance, when our imagination
perceives a shape commonality in a color representation and a texture
representation, picking out the common number of pointy features in
the visual and tactile representations.

This view provides a different reading of the RP passage that does not
demand rational exertion, only the unconscious application of rational
principles, a reading supported by a further passage:
My view rests on the fact that in the case of the sphere there are no
distinguished points on the surface of the sphere taken in itself, since
everything there is uniform and without angles, whereas in the case
of the cube there are eight points which are distinguished from all
the others. (RB II.ix.8, 137)
So, in the case of a tactile representation of a sphere, the imagination
would find a commonality in the smooth character of the visual repre-
sentations wherein the commonality of shape and number would then
give rise to an inner perception of a sphere shape, thereby connecting
the common features of differently sensed experiences, triggering the
innate common representation of a sphere housed in the mind. The
imaginations comparison of the commonalities of the different sensory
ideas is not just of the qualities that each sense modality responds to,
but of the commonality shared by these qualitiesit is this commonality
to which the imagination sense is dedicated. The inner sense compares,
to again quote with emphasis, the numbers and shapes that are in color
... with the numbers and shapes that are in tactile qualities (AG 187,
letter to Queen Sophie Charlotte, 1702). Thus, according to Leibniz,
single modalities give rise to experiences of shape and number but are
presented in a sensory format. The imagination disregards these formats,
attending only to their common spatial content, giving rise to an inner
sense of shape and number as united.
This description of how differently sensed experiences come together
and agree is quite different from the consciously reflective process sug-
gested by other commentators. In particular, the use of the imagination
by the common sense is perceptual rather than intellectual. We must,
however, look to recent work from the cognitive sciences31 to discern
more finely how the imagination might be unconsciously employed by
a common sense.32

Gordon College


1. My abbreviations in reference to Leibnizs works are as follows: RB

for New Essays on Human Understanding, ed. Peter Remnant and Jonathan
Bennett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); AG for Leibniz: Philo-

sophical Essays, trans. and ed. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber (Indianapolis,
IN: Hackett, 1989); L for Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters, ed. L. E.
Loemker (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1969).
2. Molyneuxs question appeared in the second (1694) and later editions
of Lockes An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), hereafter referred to as Essay. Leibniz likely
first read Molyneuxs question in Pierre Costes 1700 French translation, as his
English copy was of the first edition (1690) and did not contain the question.
See AG 291 and RB viii.
3. While Locke agreed to both Molyneuxs negative reply and his stated
reasons, his additional comments have beguiled many scholars. For a recent
discussion, see M. Bruno and E. Mandelbaum, Lockes Answer to Molyneuxs
Thought Experiment, History of Philosophy Quarterly 27, no. 2 (2010): 16580.
4. As the editors of the Cambridge edition to New Essays point out, Leibniz
cannot have seen Lockes Essay as a threat, or as a landmark in terms of which
he could usefully locate himself. Rather, he took it as a rich source of doctrines
and arguments on which he could use his own philosophy (RB ix).
5. As Robert McRae writes, Leibniz is less interested in whether the man
could solve the problem than in the exact correlations which must hold between
the visual and tactile appearances. Robert McRae, Leibniz: Perception, Apper-
ception, and Thought (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 22.
6. This isomorphism is discussed by Leibniz just prior to his discussion of
Molyneuxs question, where he writes that there exists a certain precise and
natural relationship between what is projected and the projection which is made
from it, with each point on the one corresponding through a certain relation
with a point on the other (RB II.viii.15 131). In his reply to the question, Leib-
niz refers to Gerard Desargues (RB II.ix.8 138), a French mathematician who
proved that certain geometrical features of shape were preserved by perspectival
projections. This was a likely source of Leibnizs own account of perception as
expression. See Chris Swoyer, Leibnizian Expression, Journal of the History
of Philosophy 33, no. 1 (1995): 6599.
7. There are several commentators who have offered this general interpreta-
tion of Leibnizs answer. They include McRae, Leibniz: Perception, Apperception,
and Thought, 22; Gareth Evans, Molyneuxs Question, in Collected Papers,
36499 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); Alessandra C. Jacomuzzi, Pietro
Kobau, and Nicola Bruno, Molyneuxs Question Redux, Phenomenology and the
Cognitive Sciences 2, no. 4 (2003): 25580; and James van Cleve, Reids Answer
to Molyneuxs Question, The Monist 90, no. 2 (2007): 25170.
8. Leibniz does not use the term common sensible in his reply. I take this
more familiar term to be equivalent to common representation, a phrase I use
throughout the remainder of this paper.
9. A helpful introduction to the field of sensory integration in psychology
is found in Barry E. Stein and M. Alex Meredith, The Merging of the Senses
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).

10. Samuel Levey, Leibniz on Precise Shapes and the Corporeal World,
in Leibniz: Nature and Freedom, ed. Donald Rutherford and J. A. Cover, 6984
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), cf. 7677.
11. See Robert Brandoms discussion of this feature in Leibnizs represen-
tationalism in Leibniz and Degrees of Perception, Journal of the History of
Philosophy 19, no. 4 (1981): 44779.
12. Leibniz generally uses the terms image and idea to describe sensory
representations of sight, touch, etc. He generally reserves the terms concept
and sometimes exact idea in reference to definitional representations. For
instance, in his answer to Molyneuxs question, he states, ... distinguish images
from exact ideas which are composed of definitions (RB II.ix, 137) Throughout
this paper, I will refer to all these kinds of mental content in general as repre-
sentations, distinguishing the imagist form as sensory representations and
the definitional form as common representations.
13. Nicholas Jolley provides one basis for Leibnizs ambiguity: Leibniz
himself often seems uncertain about the precise nature of his dispute with
Locke, and a note of exasperation disturbs the surface of the Nouveaux Es-
sais. Nicholas Jolley, Leibniz and Locke on Essences, in Leibniz: Critical and
interpretive Essays, ed. Michael Hooker, 196208 (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1982). Though Jolleys point concerns Leibnizs discussion
of Lockes nominalism in book III, it may help account for some ambiguity in
Leibnizs affirmative reply to Molyneuxs question in book II.
14. Passages are categorized by the kind of strategy they suggest.
15. A fourth interpretation suggested by Jesse Prinz claims that Leibniz
thought that common representations would be rationally employed by the once-
blind in his recognition of the shapes. See Jesse Prinz, Furnishing the Mind:
Concepts and Their Perceptual Basis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 133.
Though this fits nicely in the conceptual rubric portrayed by Figure 2, fitting
the X top right box, there is no textual evidence to support this as a viable
interpretation of Leibnizs answer to Molyneuxs question.
16. Evans Molyneuxs Question, table, 381.
17. Van Cleve, Reids Answer to Molyneuxs Question, 25253.
18. Jacomuzzi et al., Molyneuxs Question Redux, 83.
19. See Kants Critique of Pure Reason, A 271, B 327) and Jonathan Bennetts
Kants Analytic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 55. McRaes
devastating critique of this interpretation in Leibniz: Perception, Apperception,
and Thought has been further advanced by G. H. R Parkinson, The Intel-
lectualization of Appearances: Aspects of Leibnizs Theory of Sensation and
Thought, in Leibniz: Critical and Interpretive Essays, 320.
20. One way to state the difference between the common-sense interpreta-
tion of Leibniz and that of Evans is to change the placement of Leibnizs position
from a B position to a V position in the chart of answers to Molyneuxs
question provided by Evans, Molyneuxs Question, 381.

21. McRae, Leibniz: Perception, Apperception, and Thought, 22

22. Ibid.
23. This is also quoted by McRae, 22.
24. Ibid., 24,
25. Swoyer, Leibnizian Expression, 81n81. Pages 8183 and page 87 of
the Swoyer essay provide several persuasive reasons for not taking Leibnizian
expression to hold mutually translatable relations. Swoyer also argues against
interpreting Leibnizs representationalism as holding an isomorphism thesis.
However, his contention is not with the isomorphic thesis regarding simple-
shape representations and is, thus, against its general application.
26. See RB I.i.5, 77.
27. Evans, Molyneuxs Question, 37980.
28. The claim that Leibnizs account of perception is of external objects
does not commit him to a realist position like G. H. R. Parkinsons in Logic and
Reality in Leibnizs Metaphysics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965). For,
though these objects are not ideas, they are phenomena. In other words, the
interpretation presented here is not inconsistent with Leibnizs water-wheel
metaphor of objects. As this paper is limited to epistemological problems of Leib-
nizs account of perception, for further discussion of its metaphysical problems,
see Mark Kulstad, Some Difficulties in Leibnizs Definition of Perception, in
Leibniz: Critical and Interpretive Essays, 6578.
29. This is not to suggest that, for Leibniz, cognition is not also required in
some instances of determining the external status of objects: It seems that the
senses could not convince us of the existence of sensible things without help
from reason (RB II, vii, 1, 129).
30. This interpretation of Leibnizs added condition follows Janet Levins
view in her paper Molyneuxs Question and the Individuation of Perceptual
Concepts, Philosophical Studies 139, no. 1 (2008): 128, n16.
31. If Leibnizs answer was indeed based on an inner sense that implicitly
detects geometrical commonalities of sensed shapes, then it anticipates a recent
discovery in the cognitive sciences of an area of the brain, the lateral occipital
tactile-visual complex (LOtv), functionally dedicated to detecting seen and/or
touched shapes by their geometrical properties alone. See Amir Amedi, et al.,
Visuo-haptic Object-related Activation in the Ventral Visual Pathway, Nature
Neuroscience 3, no. 4 (2001): 32430.
32. I would like to thank Janet Levin and James van Cleve for helpful
feedback on earlier versions of this paper. I also thank the participants at the
Fourth Annual Conference of the Leibniz Society of North America, where a
draft of this paper was presented.