Thoughts from John Hull & ‘Notes on Blindness’

John Hull was meant to join us at a speaker at the ‘Blindness’ event in May 2014. Unfortunately, he had to pull out at the last minute due to ill health. However, John has generously agreed to share some thoughts he had in relation to the event on this site. When preparing for the event, each speaker was asked to respond to two questions: How can the non-blind understand blindness? and How can blindness be represented? Here are John’s responses:

How can the non-blind understand blindness?

There are, of course, many kinds of understanding.  As someone who has had no light sensation for more than 30 years, I have never stopped wondering about the meaning of blindness, and I am not sure if meaning is the same thing as understanding.  I think that total blindness is a life world, in the sense used by Alfred Schutz and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  It is so far removed from the life world of sighted people that mutual comprehension is difficult.  Darkness and light are antithetical.  Since I have no light I do not experience darkness; I am in a place beyond light and darkness.  What does that mean?  Inter-subjectivity works on the presupposition of reciprocity but between blind and sighted people reciprocity is damaged.  I draw a fundamental distinction between sighted people who cannot see and blind people.  You cannot simulate the blind condition by closing your eyes.

Some sighted people seem to have a kind of intuitive empathy which creates a strangely beautiful sense of acceptance within a common humanity.  Love overcomes all barriers.

> How can blindness be represented?

How can the different human worlds speak to each other?  The gift of art is to enlarge imagination, not to shrink from difference and to be ready for vulnerability.  Blindness cannot be presented cognitively without emotion since to encounter another world is also to understand one’s self.

John Hull’s books on blindness are Touching the Rock (re-issued 2013 from SPCK with a forward Oliver Sacks); In the Beginning there was Darkness (SCM Press, 2001); and The Tactile Heart: Blindness and Faith (SCM Press, 2013).  He has written the theological section of Disability: The Inclusive Church Resource (DLT, 2014), pp. 49-100.

Here you can watch the short film Notes on Blindness, made by James Spinney and Peter Middleton. Notes on Blindness is a New York Times Op-Doc, which premiered at Sundance in January 2014. The film uses John Hull’s original audio diary recordings, kept between 1983 and 1986, which were later published as Touching The Rock.   

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Blindness Footage

On 7th May 2014 an audience gathered in the Science Museum’s Directors’ Suite for a panel discussion on Blindness. Due to ill health and work commitments scheduled speakers John Hull, James Spinney and Peter Middleton could unfortunately not make it. However, James and Peter’s film about John Hull Notes on Blindness was shown in their absence. Tom Espiner also stepped in at the last moment in complete the line-up. Tom’s show Going Dark, which recounts the story of a man going blind, can be seen below along with the talks given by Colin Blakemore and Ophelia Deroy on the night.

Colin Blakemore

Ophelia Deroy


Going Dark trailer – a show by Sound & Fury and Fuel (Tom Espiner from Sound & Fury spoke on the night)

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Order / Disorder Footage

Here is some footage from our event on ‘Order / Disorder’ which took place at the Dana Centre in April 2014, featuring Derek Bolton, Seb Franklin, Paul Stevenson and Peter Wiegold.


Derek Bolton


Paul Stevenson


Peter Wiegold


Unfortunately footage of Seb Franklin’s talk is unavailable.



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‘Blindness’, 7th May 2014, The Director’s Suite, Science Museum

Still from 'Notes on Blindness'

‘Blindness’, 7th May 2014, 6.30-8.30pm, followed by a drinks reception

The Director’s Suite, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2DD


How can the non-blind understand blindness? How can blindness be represented? These questions and other aspects of blindness will be explored by writer and theologian John Hull, neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, philosopher Ophelia Deroy and filmmakers James Spinney and Peter Middleton (who are currently making a film about John Hull’s experience of blindness). Each speaker will give a short presentation on blindness, and there will then be time for discussion and audience questions.

In this event blindness will be considered from across the arts and sciences. The diverse speakers will offer a wide range of insights into this topic and the issues associated with it.

Tickets are free but must be booked. Please book by calling 020 7942 4040 or email

Speaker Bios

Colin Blakemore

Colin Blakemore FMedSci FRCP FRS studied Medical Sciences at Cambridge and did a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. After 11 years in Cambridge, he moved to Oxford in 1979 to be Waynflete Professor of Physiology and he directed the Oxford Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience. From 2003-7 he was Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council. His research has been concerned with many aspects of vision, early development of the brain and plasticity of the cerebral cortex. He has been President of the British Science Association, the British Neuroscience Association, the Physiological Society and the Society of Biology. In 2012 he moved to his current position as Professor of Neuroscience and Philosophy in the School of Advanced Study, University of London, where he leads a major project aimed at integrating philosophical and scientific approaches to the study of perception. He is a frequent broadcaster on radio and television, and writes in the national press about science and science policy.

Ophelia Deroy

Ophelia Deroy (PhD.) is the associate director of the Institute of Philosophy, at the University of London, and specialises in philosophy and cognitive neuroscience. Her work has addressed the effects of blindness on other sensory modalities, and focused on the promises of sensory substitution devices to recruit touch or audition to compensate the loss of sight. She is a currently a co-investigator on the AHRC project ‘Rethinking the senses’ which is pioneering new interdisciplinary research on multisensory perception.

John Hull

John M Hull is honorary Professor of Practical Theology in the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education and Emeritus Professor of Religious Education in the University of Birmingham.  He has written about his experiences of total blindness in Touching the Rock (SPCK, 2013), In the Beginning there was Darkness (SCM Press, 2001), and The Tactile Heart: Blindness and faith (SCM Press, 2013).  In 2012 the RNIB granted him a Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to the literature of blindness.  The short film ‘Notes on Blindness’, based on his own experiences, was presented at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and can be viewed on YouTube ‘NewYorkTimesNotesOnBlindness’.

James Spinney and Peter Middleton

Peter and James are London-based filmmakers.  Their short film Rainfall won the best short award at Hot Docs Film Festival. The follow up Notes on Blindness ( was produced with the New York Times documentary strand Op-Docs and has been selected for Sundance and SXSW. They are currently developing their first feature (

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‘Order / Disorder’, 15th April 2014, Dana Centre Cafe

‘OrderOrder & Disorder / Disorder’, 15th April 2014

Dana Centre Cafe, Science Museum, London

6.30-8.30pm, followed by a drinks reception

The Science Museum’s Dana Centre
165 Queen’s Gate
South Kensington

Where do we draw the line between order and disorder? What is the significance of this, and how might it differ from one area of knowledge to another? How do varying conceptions of order and disorder across diverse practices and disciplines affect our overall understanding of the relationship between them?

The London Interdisciplinary Discussion Group aims to explore a specific topic from a range of disciplinary perspectives, considering what the topic means for those working across the humanities, sciences, arts and medicine. This meeting will investigate order and disorder, and will feature four speakers: Derek Bolton, a clinical psychologist and philosopher; Seb Franklin, a literary critic who explores representations of the digital; Paul Stevenson, a nuclear physicist, and Peter Wiegold, a musician, composer and researcher. Each speaker will give a short presentation on the topic of ‘Order / Disorder’ and there will then be time for questions and discussion with the audience.

Tickets are free but must be booked. Please book by calling 020 7942 4040 or e-mail

See here for the Dana Centre’s page for this event.

Speaker Bios

Derek Bolton is Professor of Philosophy and Psychopathology at the Institute of Psychiatry Kings College London and Honorary Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the Maudsley Hospital South London. He read Philosophy at Cambridge University and completed a Ph.D. there on Wittgenstein’s Philosophy before training as a Clinical Psychologist. His interests span clinical practice, research and training, and philosophical issues in mental health. Work in philosophy and psychiatry includes numerous articles and, with J. Hill, Mind, Meaning, and Mental Disorder: The Nature of Causal Explanation in Psychology and Psychiatry, 2e,Oxford University Press, 2004, and What is mental disorder? An essay in philosophy, science and values. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Seb Franklin is a Lecturer in Contemporary Literature at King’s College London. His research addresses the aesthetic forms of digital culture and the connections between the histories of science and technology, cultural history, and critical theory. His first book is forthcoming from the MIT Press.

Paul Stevenson is a Senior Lecturer in Nuclear Physics at the University of Surrey, Guildford. His research involves the study of the structure of atomic nuclei, and dynamic processes involving them, such as fission and fusion reactions.  He obtained his doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1999, worked in the USA for a year before moving at Surrey.  He has been past chair of the Institute of Physics South Central Branch, and the British Science Association Physics and Astronomy section.  Paul blogs regularly on nuclear physics at

Peter Wiegold is the director of Club Inégales and the Institute of Composing. Peter’s recent works include He is armoured without for the BBC Proms, Bow-Wave for the National Youth Orchestra and The End of the Line an opera for 150 performers from the RNCM for Manchester Piccadilly Railway station. He has recently conducted the Composers’ Ensemble, BCMG, Northern Sinfonia, the Hourglass Ensemble, Canada and Symphony Nova Scotia. With his band Notes Inégales he has performed in Singapore and Hong Kong collaborating with musicians there. They and have recently released 2 CDs: ‘Kafka’s Wound’, featuring Will Self and klesmer music and ‘Envoi’ a homage to Miles Davis recorded in Switzerland. Peter is also a research Professor at Brunel University and also director of BICMEM, the ‘Brunel Institute for Contemporary Middle-Eastern Music’, supporting emerging composers from the Middle-East.

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Forthcoming Events in Spring 2014: ‘Order / Disorder’ & ‘Blindness’

Dana Centre CafeI am delighted to announce that we have two forthcoming events. The first will be on ‘Order / Disorder’ and will feature Derek Bolton, Seb Franklin, Paul Stevenson and Peter Wiegold. For more details see here.

The second event will be on ‘Blindness’ and will feature writer and theologian John Hull, neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, philosopher Ophelia Deroy and filmmakers James Spinney and Peter Middleton (who are currently making a film about John Hull’s experience of blindness). More details on this event soon!

Both events will be held in the cafe at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre (pictured) from 6.30-8.30pm and both events will be followed by a drinks reception.

The ‘Order / Disorder’ discussion will take place on 15th April. The ‘Blindness’ event will be held on 7th May.

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Vision and Images Discussion Footage

On 22nd January 2013 we held an event at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre on the topic of ‘Vision and Images’. Our speakers were Helen Barron, Matteo Farinella, Ludmilla Jordanova, Toby Ward and Lucy Wilford. You can read more about each of them here. Each speaker responded to the question ‘what are the methods of looking employed in your production and/or interpretation of images?’ and used it to speak about their own practice.

The event was filmed and you can find the link to the video of the event here. Alternatively, you can watch them in the order in which they spoke by watching the videos below in sequence. Some images have had to be removed for copyright/confidentiality reasons.

Many thanks to Paul Craddock for filming and to the Centre for the Humanities and Health, King’s College London and to the Wellcome Trust for supporting this event.

Lucy Wilford

Helen Barron

Toby Ward

Matteo Farinella

Ludmilla Jordanova

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Vision and Images: 22nd January 2013

London Interdisciplinary Discussion Group – NEXT MEETING!

Vision and Images

6-8pm, 22nd January 2013

The Science Museum’s Dana Centre
165 Queen’s Gate
South Kensington

Please email to book for this talk. And see the Dana Centre web page for this event more information about the venue. The event will be followed by a wine reception.

At this meeting our speakers Helen Barron, Matteo Farinella, Ludmilla Jordanova, Toby Ward and Lucy Wilford will discuss vision and images from the perspectives of history, medicine (psychiatry), art and neuroscience. Each speaker will address the question ‘what are the methods of looking employed in your production and/or interpretation of images?’ Using examples, they will each explore how they work with or produce images in their own practice.

As usual, the speakers will present for about an hour in total (each for around 10-15 mins), and there will then be an hour for questions and general discussion between all in attendance.

This event is free and all are welcome! We are very happy to be able to hold this event at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. Please email to book.

The Speakers:

Helen Barron

Helen Barron is currently doing a PhD in Neuroscience at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, UCL. Her research explores the neural representation of both rewarding and non-rewarding objects in the human brain.  In particular, she is interested in understanding how we represent unfamiliar objects and the neurobiological mechanisms underlying memory formation between multiple objects.  She uses functional MRI (fMRI) to generate both anatomical and functional images of the human brain whilst participants carry out specific tasks.  She will discuss how interpretation of these images allows for inferences to be made regarding the neurological basis of object representation.

Matteo Farinella

Matteo is currently doing a PhD in neuroscience at University College London. During the years he also developed a parallel career as a comic artist and collaborated with several international magazines. Recently he became interested in science communication and he started to produce scientific illustrations and short educational comics. In 2012 he received a Wellcome Trust People Award to write a graphic novel aimed to disseminate basic notions of neuroscience (in collaboration with Dr. Hana Ros and film-maker Richard Wyllie).

Ludmilla Jordanova

Ludmilla Jordanova was trained in the natural sciences, history and philosophy of science and art history and theory, and she tries to blend these perspectives in her historical work. Her current interests include portraiture, public history, and the construction of identity in medical contexts. She is a Trustee of the Science Museum Group, which comprises five museums in London, York, Bradford, Manchester and Shildon, and was a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery London between 2001 and 2009. Recent books include History in Practice, 2nd edition, 2006 and The Look of the Past: visual and material evidence in historical practice, 2012.

Toby Ward

Toby Ward attended the City and Guilds of London Art School where he won the Richard Ford Travel Award.  Widely known for his conversation pieces and animated drawings commissioned to record events, he is also an accomplished portrait painter. He has drawn many events, including President Clinton’s visit to Oxford in 2001 and the work of the United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Bosnia.  He also accompanied HRH The Prince of Wales to record his tour of the Gulf States. Toby has also worked on many important architectural projects including a series of drawings recording the rebuilding of the Royal Opera House and the conservation of Chastleton House in Oxfordshire for The National Trust.  He has also been commissioned to draw and paint many interiors including those of the Ritz Hotel and Prideaux Place in Cornwall. Toby has been working at St Martin-in-the Fields since 2003 observing and recording the life of the Church and documenting its recent renewal project in a set of large drawings. Other residencies have been at the Athenaeum Club, The Mercers’ Company and The Society of Antiquaries of London. In 2004 Toby was commissioned to draw the Tour de France in Liege, this lead to a series of paintings inspired by the sport of cycling. Other sporting commissions include a residency at the 2011 Open Golf Championship. Toby has also illustrated two books describing the adventures of those who played the Great Game in central Asia in the 19th century and a book describing the life of the Island of Madeira. Toby shows his work with the Catto gallery and the New English Art Club to which he was elected in 2010.

Lucy Wilford

Lucy Wilford is a junior doctor in her second year of specialist psychiatry training. She is currently working at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, completing a six month post focused on psychotherapy at the Anxiety Disorders Residential Unit. She graduated from Southampton University in 2008, and worked in Winchester and Portsmouth before coming to London to complete a Master’s degree in Medical Humanities at King’s College London last year. Since returning to full time medicine, she has been involved in setting up a teaching scheme for medical students which uses visual art to explore the process of developing empathy and understanding in medical practice.

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Video Podcast of Transplantation Discussion Group

We are now able to offer video podcasts of the interdisciplinary discussion group’s meeitngs.

On 25th June we gathered at King’s College London to discuss the topic of transplantation. Historian Paul Craddock, philosopher Adam Ferner, clinician and scientist Refik Gökmen and artist Helen Pynor each gave their perspective on the topic. Full details on the speakers can be found here and a full video of their presentations can be watched here.




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Transplantation: 25th June 2012

London Interdisciplinary Discussion Group

Transplantation: 25th June 2012 5-7pm, K3.11 Raked Lecture Theatre, King’s College London, Strand.

At our next meeting we will be discussing transplantation. Our speakers will be Paul Craddock, Adam Ferner, Refik Gökmen and Helen Pynor. The work of all these speakers concerns transplantation in some way, and you can read more about Paul, Adam, Refik and Helen below. As usual, their presentations will be followed by an hour of general discussion.

All three speakers will be addressing the ways in which transplantation relates to our understanding of ‘life’. They have suggested that it may be helpful to think about the following in advance. No need to do anything in particular, just some ideas to get you thinking before coming along!

  • What sort of conceptual space allows for the possibility of bodily transplantation?
  • How do you understand transplantation?
  • In what ways do you think transplantation relates to transfusion?
  • How do you think modern transplantation shaped the boundaries of life and death?
  • How does transplantation affect the way we understand ownership of life?

Paul Craddock

Paul is a Ph.D. candidate currently writing on pre-20th century transplant surgery and transfusion at the London Consortium. After a brief time studying music and performing arts, living in rural China, and working for the National Health Service, Paul made the switch to cultural and medical history.  In this field, he has been invited to lecture around the UK, in Europe, and in the US.  He has never had a transplant and never received a transfusion – his interest in these procedures come from thinking about generally how we relate to the material world by making transactions that are at the same time bodily and financial.

Currently based in London, Paul is the Director of London Consortium Television, the audio-visual arm of the London Consortium. And in another professional life, he shoots and produces films for medical establishments and museum exhibitions.  He has films currently on exhibition in the Royal Academy of Arts and the British Dental Association Museum.

Adam Ferner

Adam Ferner is currently doing his PhD at Birkbeck College. His research is focussed primarily on how philosophical biological concerns impact on the ‘personal identity debate’ as it stands in analytic metaphysics. He also works for the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and does editorial work for the journals Think and Philosophy, and regularly contributes to The Philosophers Magazine.

Refik Gökmen

Refik is a Clinical Lecturer in Renal Medicine at the MRC Centre for Transplantation based at the Guy’s Campus of King’s College London. He recently completed his PhD in Immunology in the same department, and now divides his time between ongoing laboratory-based research into basic immune mechanisms, and clinical work in nephrology and transplantation on the South Thames training programme in Renal Medicine.

He qualified in medicine from Cambridge and UCL, and has maintained an interest in the ethical and philosophical dimensions of both clinical practice and scientific research ever since his BA degree in the History & Philosophy of Science.

Helen Pynor

Artist Helen Pynor works at the intersection of art and the life sciences. Her research interests include the relationship between the materiality of the body and its status as a culturally constructed entity, and the notion of a ‘distributed’ consciousness that extends beyond the brain to the wider body. She has recently completed a major project with artist Peta Clancy, ‘The Body is a Big Place’, exploring organ transplantation and the capacity for bodies to travel spatially, temporally, and interpersonally.

Helen holds a Bachelor of Science, First Class Hons (Macquarie University), a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Sydney College of the Arts) and a practice-based PhD (Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney). Helen has exhibited widely in Australia and Europe including at the current ‘Brains: The Mind as Matter’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London, where her work is the lead image for the exhibition.

Helen’s collaborator Peta Clancy is a visual artist who has explored photography and more recently video and new media to undertake an extended inquiry into art and the biomedical sciences. Through her photographic practice she has conducted an in depth exploration of the skin as a porous membrane and the surface of the photographic medium. Peta recently completed a practice based PhD in Fine art at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia where she currently holds a lecturing position.

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