Revolution and Cure: Molyneux’s Problem, Denis Diderot’s Letter on the Blind, and Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive

Andrew Sydlik


This essay traces the influence of Enlightenment philosophy, specifically Denis Diderot’s Letter on the Blind, on Royall Tyler’s American novel The Algerine Captive. Focusing on the largely overlooked role of disability in the novel, I argue that The Algerine Captive reflects a medical and moral model of disability that draws on Diderot’s representation of blindness as a biological defect and a moral lack. Tyler explores American anxieties over whether the new nation would survive the political divisions pervading the country following the Revolutionary War. While sympathy was touted as a means of unity by both political leaders and authors, Diderot’s Letter and Tyler’s The Algerine Captive reflect the view of blindness as a disruption to sympathy. I interrogate this framework to show how it promotes the necessity of medical and moral intervention to enable both sight and sympathy. According to the novel, sympathy, like sight, can only be achieved through proper training, by learning to “see” others, and the supposed equality and freedoms of America, correctly.

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