Descartes on Seeing: Epistemology and Visual Perception

Descartes on Seeing: Epistemology and Visual Perception  In this first book-length examination of the Cartesian theory of visual perception, Celia Wolf-Devine explores the many philosophical implications of Descartes’ theory, concluding that he ultimately failed to provide a completely mechanistic theory of visual perception.

   Wolf-Devine traces the development of Descartes’ thought about visual perception against the backdrop of the transition from Aristotelianism to the new mechanistic science—the major scientific paradigm shift taking place in the seventeenth century. She considers the philosopher’s work in terms of its background in Aristotelian and later scholastic thought rather than looking at it "backwards" through the later work of the British empiricists and Kant. Wolf-Devine begins with Descartes’ ideas about perception in the Rules and continues through the later scientific writings in which he develops his own mechanistic theory of light, color, and visual spatial perception. Throughout her discussion, she demonstrates both Descartes’ continuity with and break from the Aristotelian tradition.

   Wolf-Devine critically examines Cartesian theory by focusing on the problems that arise from his use of three different models to explain the behavior of light as well as on the ways in which modern science has not confirmed some of Descartes’ central hypotheses about vision. She shows that the changes Descartes made in the Aristotelian framework created a new set of problems in the philosophy of perception. While such successors to Descartes as Malebranche, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume accepted the core of his theory of vision, they struggled to clarify the ontological status of colors, to separate what is strictly speaking "given" to the sense of sight from what is the result of judgments by the mind, and to confront a "veil of perception" skepticism that would have been unthinkable within the Aristotelian framework.

   Wolf-Devine concludes that Descartes was not ultimately successful in providing a completely mechanistic theory of visual perception, and because of this, she suggests both that changes in the conceptual framework of Descartes are in order and that a partial return to some features of the Aristotelian tradition may be necessary.